Howards End

views updated Jun 27 2018

Howards End
E. M. Forster

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


When Howards End was published in 1910, critics generally agreed it surpassed E. M. Forster's earlier novels. Forster had arrived as an important author, and the public and critics eagerly anticipated his next novel. But fourteen years would elapse before the publication of A Passage to India, which would also be the last novel published during his lifetime. Forster's novels are all considered classics, with Howards End and A Passage to India regarded as his best works. Like all of Forster's early novels, Howards End concerns itself with Edwardian society. As a member of the upper-middle class, Forster had keen insight into its attitudes and social mores, which he expertly rendered in Howards End. His humanistic values and interest in personal relationships inform all of his novels, and are revealed in the major themes of Howards End: connection between the inner and outer life and between people, the future of England, and class conflicts. Howards End has been called a parable; indeed, its symbolism reaches almost mythic proportions at various points in the novel. Although elements of the plot construction have been problematic for some critics, opinion of his character creation and development is almost unanimously given the highest praise. With Margaret Schlegel, Henry Wilcox, Helen Schlegel, Leonard Bast, and Forster created some of the most unforgettable and complex characters in English literature.

Author Biography

Edward Morgan Forster was born on January 1, 1879, in Coventry, England. His father died when he was only a year and a half old, leaving him to the care of his mother and a devoted circle of female relatives. He and his mother lived at Rooksnest, their beloved country house near Stevenage in Hertfordshire. After a rather unhappy adolescence as a student at Tonbridge School, Forster enrolled at Cambridge University, where he flourished.

At Cambridge the emphasis was on liberal arts and individual expression; Forster found freedom to pursue both intellectual development and personal relationships. It was here that he began developing many of the humanistic ideas and values that would come to dominate his literary works. He became a member of the Cambridge Apostles, an intellectual discussion group. Many Apostles were later active in the Bloomsbury Group, which began informal salons in London about 1905. Several in the Bloomsbury circle later became famous: Lytton Strachey as a critic, biographer, and historian; Leonard Woolf as political activist and theorist and man of letters; John Maynard Keynes as a political and economic theorist; Roger Fry and Clive Bell as art critics; Grant and Vanessa Bell as painters; and Virginia Woolf and Forster as novelists. The Bloomsbury Group was influenced by Cambridge philosophers, especially G. E. Moore, who believed in the value of social interaction and cultural stimuli, and possessed a passion for the truth and a skepticism toward moral tradition.

After Forster graduated from Cambridge in 1901, he traveled abroad for a year. Between 1902 and 1910, he wrote four novels: Where Angels Fear To Tread (1905), A Room with a View (1908), The Longest Journey (1907), and Howards End (1910). With Howards End, Forster achieved status as a major writer, receiving high critical praise. Forster's novels were recognized for their precise character portrayal, their concern with the complexities of human nature, and their detailed, comical descriptions of Edwardian society. His next novel, A Passage to India, did not appear until 1924, and was the last novel published during his lifetime. A posthumously published novel, Maurice, tells the story of a young man's growing awareness of his homosexuality and is based on Forster's own experiences. The publication of A Passage to India firmly established Forster's reputation as a master novelist. Drawn from Forster's experiences in India during visits there in 1912 and 1921, A Passage to India portrays the social and political realities of colonial India.

For the rest of his career, Forster focused on writing short stories, essays, biographies, and travel books. He also became quite politically active, and wrote essays in which he spoke out against many of the political and social ills of his time. In the mid-1940s he was offered a resident fellowship at Cambridge University, which he enthusiastically accepted. He became one of the most celebrated figures at the university, and remained active in university life and continued to write and publish well into the early 1960s. He died on June 7, 1970, in Coventry at the home of friends.

Plot Summary

Howards End begins with Helen Schlegel's brief affair with Paul Wilcox. In its wake, Helen's Aunt Juley travels to Howards End, the Wilcox home, to discuss the relationship with the Wilcoxes, not knowing that it has already ended. The Wilcoxes react with horror to news of the affair, believing, unlike the Schlegels, that Paul must make his fortune before he marries.

Helen, her romance with Paul and the rest of the Wilcox family over, returns to the Schlegel house, Wickham Place, and she and her sister Margaret resume their old life together. They attend a concert of Beethoven with other family members, and Helen accidentally walks off with the umbrella of Leonard Bast, a poor clerk teetering on the edge of respectability. After accompanying Margaret to Wickham Place to retrieve his umbrella, Leonard accepts her card, and returns to his own shabby flat, where he lives with Jacky, a woman much older than he.

The Schlegels learn that the Wilcoxes are taking a flat across the street from Wickham Place, and Ruth Wilcox soon calls on Margaret. Margaret writes a rude note suggesting that they should not meet because of the possibility of an encounter between Helen and Paul, and Mrs. Wilcox replies to her that they should meet, because there is no possibility of an encounter between the two former lovers. The two women strike up a friendship, in spite of Mrs. Wilcox's discomfort in Margaret's world. Mrs. Wilcox feels that Margaret understands her attachment to Howards End, and after a day of shopping together, she impulsively proposes they go there. Margaret wavers at first, but they leave for the train station, where they meet Henry and Evie Wilcox, Mrs. Wilcox's husband and daughter. Mrs. Wilcox is spirited off by her family, and Margaret's visit is postponed. Soon after, Mrs. Wilcox dies.

The Wilcoxes are alarmed to discover that Mrs. Wilcox has left a note leaving Howards End to Margaret. They decide to burn the note, and not speak of it to Margaret.

Two years pass. The Schlegels are about to lose their house at Wickham Place, which will be destroyed so that flats may be built there. Leonard Bast's wife, Jacky, comes round to the house looking for him. Leonard has disappeared for an evening, and Jacky thinks he is with the Schlegels. The next day, Bast appears at Wickham Place, explaining that he has taken an all-night walk outside of London. When he notes that the dawn was gray and not at all romantic, the Schlegels are charmed by him. When they mention Bast to Henry Wilcox, he tells them Bast's company is in danger of going under, and they resolve to warn Bast of this eventuality. They invite Bast to tea, and he is suspicious of their desire to talk business when he wants to talk poetry. The tea is interrupted when Evie and Henry Wilcox arrive at the house, and as Bast is leaving, he tells the Schlegels he will not call again. Mr. Wilcox thinks that Margaret is attracted to Leonard Bast, and feels an attraction for her as a result. Soon after, at a lunch with Evie, Mr. Wilcox offers to lease the Wilcoxes' Ducie Street flat to the Schlegels. While Margaret tours the flat, Mr. Wilcox asks her to marry him, and she accepts.

Margaret wants to live at Howards End, but her fiancé is against it. Meanwhile, Helen has had a letter from Leonard Bast, who is leaving his company for another post at lower pay. When Margaret mentions this to Henry, he says that in fact Bast's company is a very stable firm. Though the Schlegels blame Henry for Bast's predicament, he shrugs off their criticism.

Margaret and Henry make a trip to Howards End, where she is frightened by Miss Avery, who mistakes her for Ruth Wilcox. Margaret loves the house, but believes that she and Henry will live at Oniton, where they attend Evie's wedding to Percy Cahill. Helen, who has refused to attend the wedding, arrives there unexpectedly with Leonard and Jacky Bast, saying that she has found them starving. Margaret is planning to ask Henry to give Bast a place in his company, but before she can do so, Jacky recognizes Henry as her former lover. Helen takes the Basts to a hotel, where she and Leonard have an intimate conversation. Margaret, who believes Henry's unfaithfulness is the late Mrs. Wilcox's tragedy rather than hers, refuses Henry's offer to release her from their engagement, and they reconcile. Before Margaret can speak with any of them, Helen and the Basts leave their hotel.

Before she goes to Germany, Helen attempts to give the Basts a substantial monetary gift, but they refuse. They are soon evicted and forced to rely on handouts from Leonard's family. Wickham Place is destroyed to make way for flats, and Margaret and Henry marry. With the family scattered, the Schlegels' furniture is stored at Howards End. When Margaret hears that Miss Avery has unpacked the Schlegels' things, she goes to Howards End. She is amazed to see how well her furniture fits in the house, but is soon called away to Swanage when she gets news of her aunt's illness. Margaret and her brother Tibby contact Helen, who has been in Germany for eight months, to tell her Juley is gravely ill, and Helen agrees to come to Swanage. When Helen hears that Juley has recovered, she refuses to see her family, but will get some books from Howards End. Believing her sister to be unwell, Margaret reluctantly agrees to Henry's plan to surprise Helen at Howards End.

As the plan is carried out, Margaret realizes that "[t]he pack was turning on Helen, to deny her human rights," and it seems to Margaret "that all Schlegels were threatened with her." When she sees her sister, who is pregnant with Leonard Bast's child, she pushes her into Howards End, and bids her husband and the doctor to leave them. Helen, on seeing their furniture and other things, asks to spend the night in Howards End. When Margaret asks Henry if they may stay at Howards End, he refuses on the grounds that it would be immoral. Margaret is disgusted by his hypocrisy and she defies his wishes, spending a peaceful night at Howards End with her sister.

Leonard Bast has been looking for Margaret, and Tibby tells him she is at Howards End. As Leonard approaches the house, he is filled with happiness, but when he enters the house, Charles strikes him, and he dies. In the wake of Bast's death and her own quarrel with him, Margaret tells Henry she will go to Germany with Helen. But Henry is broken by the certainty of Charles's conviction for manslaughter, and Margaret takes him to recover at Howards End. In the final scene of the novel, fourteen months have passed, and Helen, her child by Leonard Bast, Margaret, and Henry have become a loving family. In the presence of his children, Henry deeds Howards End to Margaret, who will leave it to her sister's son. When Dolly remarks that Margaret has gotten Howards End after all, Margaret realizes that she has conquered the Wilcoxes without even trying.


Miss Avery

Miss Avery is Ruth Wilcox's old friend and the caretaker of Howards End. She unpacks and arranges the Schlegels' furniture in Howards End, even though it is only supposed to be stored there.

Jacky Bast

Jacky is Leonard's dull, uneducated wife who was once Henry Wilcox's mistress.

Leonard Bast

Leonard is the lowly clerk who wishes to educate himself by reading books and attending concerts. "Such a muddle of a man, and yet so worth pulling though," says Helen Schlegel. He is described as being on the "abyss" of poverty, and is very self-conscious about his position in society. Suspicious of the rich, he will not be patronized by them, which is part of the reason he refuses Helen's offer of money. His two unfortunate mistakes are leaving his job on the advice of the Schlegel sisters (and Henry Wilcox), and becoming involved with Helen. The scene in which he dies, which includes a dramatic fall into a bookcase that showers him with books, has been criticized for its heavy-handed symbolism.

Frieda Mosebach

Frieda Mosebach is the Schlegels' German cousin, who attends the performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with them.

Juley Munt

Juley Munt is the Schlegels' beloved but interfering aunt, whose famously comic scene in the novel occurs when she travels to Howards End for the purpose of convincing Helen to break off her engagement to Paul Wilcox.

Helen Schlegel

The charming sister of Margaret, Helen is high-spirited and hopelessly idealistic. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony affects her most profoundly, and reveals an interesting theme in the novel. She hears a "goblin footfall" in the music, which she imagines to represent the "panic and emptiness" of life, but she also hears a repetitive motif that she imagines as the heroism, magnificence, and triumph of life. These two aspects of life intrinsically bound together echo the highs and lows of Helen's own experiences. Her short-lived love affair with Paul at the beginning of the novel is indicative of her behavior throughout—heady excitement followed by disillusionment. Ruled by passion, she seldom considers the reality of a situation until it is too late. At first she is quite taken with all of the Wilcoxes, but the ill-fated love affair with Paul colors her feelings afterwards, and she is disappointed when Margaret and Henry Wilcox announce their engagement. Her liaison with Leonard Bast is the result of her sympathy for him and her anger at Henry, who will not help Leonard. Her anger at Henry also occasions a break with Margaret. Helen eventually reconciles with Margaret and Henry, who accept her and her illegitimate child (from Leonard Bast) at Howards End.

Margaret Schlegel

Margaret is the cultured, intelligent, and sympathetic protagonist of the novel. Although idealistic like her sister Helen, she is also very sensible and realistic. "Not beautiful, not supremely brilliant, but filled with something that took the place of both qualities—something best described as a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encountered in her path through life" is Forster's description of her. Some critics have found it hard to believe that Margaret would marry Henry Wilcox, a man most definitely her opposite. But Margaret sees things "whole," and although aware of Henry's faults, she also recognizes noble qualities in him. By the end of the novel, Margaret has had some effect on him. While it could be said that Helen reaches out to help Leonard, Margaret does the same for Henry. Indeed, Margaret is the connecting force between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes; by the end of the novel, Henry seems less "muddled" and Helen seems less impulsive. But this does not occur until after Margaret nearly leaves Henry because of his refusal to allow Helen to stay the night at Howards End with her. In her famous speech to him, she implores him to connect his infidelity with Helen's transgression: "You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she's alive and cants with her memory when she's dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These, man, are you. You cannot recognize them, because you cannot connect."

Tibby Schlegel

Tibby is Margaret and Helen's younger brother, the Oxford undergraduate. Although intellectual like his sisters, he is not interested in personal relationships as they are. His placid demeanor plays comically against their more passionate personalities, and is particularly evident in the scene where Helen visits him at Oxford to let him know of her plans to go to Germany.

Charles Wilcox

Charles is the philistine elder son of Henry Wilcox. Not especially fond of the Schlegels and their "artistic beastliness," he ridiculously suspects Margaret of scheming to get Howards End. His fierce sense of class superiority leads him to beat Leonard when he finds out that he is the father of Helen's child. Charles is convicted of manslaughter for Leonard's death.

Dolly Fussel Wilcox

Dolly is the chattering, good-hearted wife of Charles Wilcox. Like her husband, she foolishly believes Margaret is scheming to get Howards End.

Evie Wilcox

Evie, the daughter of Henry Wilcox, is a rather silly, superficial woman. Although she dislikes Margaret, she humors her father's interest in Margaret.

Media Adaptations

  • Howards End was adapted for the stage by Lance Sieveking and Richard Cottrell and was produced in London in 1967.
  • The BBC production of Howards End, adapted by Pauline Macaulay, was broadcast in 1970.
  • A film adaptation of Howards End was released by Merchant Ivory Production in 1992, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. The film garnered nine Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Actress (for Thompson), Best Screenplay Adaptation, and Best Art Direction. It is available from Columbia TriStar Home Video.

Henry Wilcox

Henry is the head of the Wilcox clan, who marries Margaret Schlegel after the death of his wife, Ruth. Critic Rose Macaulay describes him this way: "He has the business mind; he is efficient, competent, unimaginative, practically clear-headed, intellectually and spiritually muddled, uncivilized, a manly man, with firm theories about women, politics, the Empire, the social fabric." He is not given to self-introspection, a trait that almost costs him his marriage to Margaret. She insists that he acknowledge the connection between his affair with Jacky Bast and Helen's involvement with Leonard Bast. But his flaw is that he lacks the ability to connect his actions with the pain they might cause in another person's life, thus his indifference to Leonard's loss of employment. Furthermore, he cannot relate his own transgressions in life to another person's similar transgressions; therefore, he cannot sympathize with Helen. He cannot "connect the prose with the passion." By the end of the novel, Henry is broken by the imprisonment of his son, Charles, which forces him to reevaluate his life.

Paul Wilcox

Paul is the younger Wilcox son with whom Helen briefly falls in love. The incident sets the tone for conflict between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels.

Ruth Wilcox

Henry's first wife, Ruth, is a kind, unselfish woman whose family adores her. However, she completely mystifies her family after she bequeaths Howards End to Margaret. She does so because she intuitively senses that Margaret will appreciate its "personality" and significance. The critic Lionel Trilling has written that Howards End represents England and its agrarian past, and that Ruth, while not intellectual, possesses ancestral wisdom that will be passed on to Margaret. Ruth is almost like a spiritual guide, or as critic Rose Macaulay states, a bridge between the unseen and the seen, and Margaret believes herself and the others "are only fragments of that woman's mind."



The major theme of Howards End is connection—connection between the private and the public life, connection between individuals—and how difficult it is to create and sustain these connections. Howards End focuses mainly on two families: the Schlegels, who represent intellectualism, imagination, and idealism—the inner life of the mind—and the Wilcoxes, who represent English practicality, expansionism, commercialism, and the external world of business and politics. For the Schlegels, personal relationships precede public ones and the individual is more important than any organization. For the Wilcoxes, the reverse is true; social formalities and the rules of the business world reign supreme.

Through the marriage of Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox, these two very different worlds are connected. Margaret, unlike her wildly idealistic sister Helen, moves toward an understanding of the Wilcoxes. Helen's initial encounter with the Wilcoxes proves disastrous, but Margaret begins to realize that many of the things she values, such as art and culture, would not exist without the economic and social stability created by people such as the Wilcoxes. "More and more," she says, "do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it."

Margaret and Henry's marriage nearly comes to an end, however, when Henry is unable to make an important connection between his sexual transgression with Jacky Bast and Helen's liaison with Leonard Bast. Margaret and Helen want to spend the night together at Howards End before Helen returns to Germany to have her baby. But the hypocritical Henry cannot tolerate the presence of a "fallen woman" on his property, and refuses to allow Margaret and Helen to remain there for the night. As the critic Malcolm Bradbury has written, Margaret insists on the "primacy of the standard of personal sympathy" while Henry emphasizes "the standard of social propriety." Margaret and Helen defy Henry by staying the night at Howards End, where they reestablish their relationship. By the novel's end, events force Henry to reconsider his values. He is reconciled to Helen, and along with Margaret and Helen's illegitimate son, they live together at Howards End under Margaret's guardianship.

Class Conflict

Another important theme in Howards End concerns struggle and conflict within the middle class. The aristocracy and the very poor do not make an appearance in this novel; the novelist states that "[w]e are not concerned with the very poor," but instead with the "gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk." The three families in Howards End each represent different levels of the middle class. The Schlegels occupy the middle position, somewhere between the Basts, who exist at the lower fringes of the middle class, and the Wilcoxes, who belong to the upper-middle class. Leonard Bast, the clerk, lives near the "abyss" of poverty, while the Schlegels live comfortably on family money, and Henry Wilcox, the wealthy business man who grows steadily richer, has money for "motors" and country houses.

Leonard Bast is somewhat obsessed by class differences, and tries to improve himself by becoming "cultured." He reads books such as Ruskin's Stones of Venice and attends concerts. He meets the Schlegel sisters at a concert performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and becomes in-terested in them mainly because they seem to take his intellectual aspirations seriously. The Schlegels are fascinated by Leonard and his situation, but Leonard's connection to the Schlegels ultimately proves fatal. When Margaret and Helen hear from Mr. Wilcox that the company Leonard works for is about to go bankrupt, they advise him to find another position. The information proves to be unsound, but Leonard follows it, taking and then losing another position. As a result, he and his wife Jacky are left nearly penniless. In the scene where Leonard, Jacky, and Helen storm into Evie's opulent wedding, Forster illustrates the huge social and economic gulf between the nearly destitute Basts and the wealthy Wilcoxes. This scene, as the critic Frederick P. W. McDowell has noted, "suggests that the impersonal forces by which the Wilcoxes prosper have operated at the expense of Leonard and his class."

Leonard is destroyed by a combination of the Wilcox's indifference and Helen's sympathy. Helen tries to convince Henry that he has a responsibility to help Leonard, because his advice essentially caused Leonard's ruin. When that proves futile, Helen's sympathy for Leonard overwhelms her and she sleeps with him. Upon discovering that Leonard is Helen's "lover," the brutish Charles Wilcox beats Leonard with the flat of the Schlegel family sword. Leonard dies not from the beating, but from a weak heart. He sinks to the floor, knocks over a bookcase and is buried in an avalanche of books, seemingly a victim of his own desire for self-improvement.

Future of England

Closely related to the themes of connection and class conflict in Howards End is the theme of inheritance. The novel concerns itself with the question of who shall inherit England. At the time Howards End was published, England was undergoing great social change. The issue of women's emancipation, commercial and imperial expansion, and the possibility of war with Germany were all factors that contributed to a general feeling of uncertainty about the future of England.

According to the critic Lionel Trilling, Howards End itself symbolizes England. It belongs to Ruth Wilcox, who descends from the yeoman class, and represents England's past. Before Ruth dies, she befriends Margaret Schlegel, and on her deathbed she scribbles a note leaving Howards End to Margaret. She cannot leave it to her family because the only feeling they have for it is one of ownership; they do not understand its spiritual importance as she knows Margaret will. The Wilcoxes dismiss Ruth's note as impossible, and disregard it completely, ignoring the rightful heir. But Margaret's connection with Ruth Wilcox in the novel is strong. Not only is she Ruth's spiritual heir, but she actually becomes Mrs. Wilcox and, ironically, inherits Howards End through her marriage to Henry.

Foster's answer to the question of who shall inherit England seems to suggest a shared inheritance. As the novel draws to a close, the intellectual Schlegels and the practical Wilcoxes are residing together at Howards End, and its immediate heir, Helen's illegitimate son, seems to symbolize a classless future.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the career of the famous German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, focusing especially on his composition of the Fifth Symphony.
  • Trace the evolution of the British Empire from 1910 to the Commonwealth of Nations today. What are some key differences between imperialist Britain of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and Britain now?
  • What were the forces that led to WWI, and what was Britain's involvement?
  • Analyze the history of the class structure in Britain. What were some of the political, social, and economic issues facing the proletariat class and the middle class in 1910? Can you relate them to Forster's depiction of Leonard and Jacky Bast?



The various locales represented in Howards End are related to the theme of inheritance and which of England's landscapes—countryside, city, or suburbs—will claim the future. During the Edwardian era, a great migration from the countryside to the city transpired, mainly because England was shifting from an agrarian nation to an industrialized nation. London, in particular, was growing at an alarming rate, and a great deal of rebuilding and restructuring of the city occurred. New modes of transportation, such as the automobile, tramcars, autobuses, and the subway, allowed people more mobility than ever before. Urban and suburban development, or "sprawl," followed the subway and tramway lines. The novel is wary of this type of progress and movement, preferring the stability of the country life and homes like Howards End versus the impersonal, chaotic world of London.

The three families in Howards End occupy three different locales: the Schlegels live in London, the Wilcoxes split their time between homes in London and the countryside (easily facilitated by their "motor"), and the Basts live in suburbia. A great deal of movement occurs between country and city, and moving house is a major activity in the novel. For Ruth Wilcox, nothing is worse than being separated from your home. When she hears that the Schlegels' lease on Wickham Place will expire and they will be forced to move, she is greatly distressed. "To be parted from your house, your father's house—it oughtn't to be allowed…. Can what they call civilization be right, if people mayn't die in the room where they were born?" she says to Margaret.


Howards End is a highly symbolic novel; many critics have described it as parable with archetypal or mythic characters. The Wilcoxes symbolize the practical, materialistic, enterprising sort of people who have contributed to England's prosperity and strengthened the empire. The Schlegels symbolize the intellectual and artistic types who possess humanistic values and recognize the importance of the spirit. Margaret and Henry's marriage demonstrates the relationship between these two personalities, emphasizing a balance between the two.

Of all the Wilcoxes, Ruth is the only one who does not fit the Wilcox "mold." She is withdrawn from modern life, intuitive, spiritual, and not at all intellectual, but as Lionel Trilling states, representative of traditional values and ancestral knowledge. Along with Miss Avery, the caretaker of Howards End, Ruth Wilcox symbolizes the importance of the human connection to nature and the earth. The wych elm tree with the pig's teeth, the vine, and the hayfield at Howards End also emphasize this connection. The movement of the seasons and the rhythms of nature are contrasted to the senseless movement of the modern, industrialized city, symbolized by the motorcar. The motorcar is never portrayed in a very attractive light: chaos and confusion seem to follow it everywhere, as in the scene where Charles hits the cat.

Other important symbols include the Schlegel books and bookcase and family sword at Howards End, which play so significantly in Leonard's death. When Leonard falls from Charles's blow with the sword and literally buries himself in books, it appears that the culture and intellectual sophistication he so desperately sought become his ruin. It is noteworthy that the sword and books belong to the Schlegels, however. Ostensibly, it seems that Leonard dies at the hand of the Wilcoxes—Henry, by giving him bad advice, and Charles, by actually dealing the final blow with the sword. But if Helen had not been overwhelmed by her sense of injustice, her anger toward the Wilcoxes, and her pity for Leonard, he would at least still have his life. The novel's bitter irony is that the person who tried to help Leonard the most effectively destroyed him.


Forster received high praise for his use of humor. Many situations in the novel are quite satirical or ironic. One of the earliest comic scenes in the novel involves Aunt Juley's trip to Howards End on Helen's behalf. When Aunt Juley mistakes Charles for Paul, the comedy begins. The discovery of the error only leads to an argument over Helen's behavior, which progresses to an argument over which family is better, the Schlegels or the Wilcoxes. The silly argument betrays the well-mannered facade of two supposedly well-bred gentlefolk. It also foreshadows the more serious conflict that will arise between the two families.

Another humorous scene involves Margaret trying to engage Tibby in a discussion about his future. She wants Tibby to think seriously of taking up a profession after he graduates. Of course, her reasons have nothing to do with the need for money. Rather, she believes it would build character. When she mentions a man's desire to work, Tibby replies, "I have no experience of this profound desire to which you allude." The aesthetic Tibby has no reason to consider a profession because he is financially secure. One of his satirical comments is that he prefers "civilization without activity."

Another semi-comic scene is the Wilcox family meeting concerning Ruth's bequest of Howards End. The Wilcoxes operate the meeting in an impersonal, business-like manner that reflects their style. Their mistrust of personal relations leads Charles to suggest that perhaps Margaret manipulated his mother into leaving her Howards End. Dolly irrationally fears that Margaret, as they speak, may be on her way to turn them all out of the house. The scene illustrates how suspicious and ill-mannered the Wilcoxes can be, and how they always suppose people are trying to get something out of them.

Historical Context

The Influence of King Edward VII

The Edwardian Era is so named after King Edward VII of England. Although King Edward's reign spanned only nine years, from 1901–1910, many historians extend the period to the start of the First World War in 1914. King Edward's personality had a major influence on the attitude of the day; his hedonism characterized the era. He loved ceremonial and state occasions and enjoyed extravagant entertaining; in fact, one of his first undertakings as king was to redecorate the Royal Palaces. An avid sportsman, King Edward particularly enjoyed horse racing, hunting, and "motoring." Motoring, essentially viewed as a sport in the early years of Edward's reign, quickly became an indispensable part of everyday life. In Howards End, the Wilcoxes rely quite heavily on their motor.

The king surrounded himself with wealthy people, befriending those who had made their fortunes in new ventures like the railway and steamship industry, and the South African diamond mines. They conducted themselves in a crude, ostentatious manner, which the king enthusiastically embraced. King Edward was also a notorious womanizer, and his wife, Queen Alexandra, eventually resigned herself to his numerous affairs. Such behavior did not endear him to the old nobility, and inevitably King Edward's rakish ways came to symbolize a certain reaction against the primness of Victorian sensibilities. The pursuit of pleasurable diversions were the hallmark of the period, with outings to musical halls, theaters, sporting events and weekend parties in the country considered fashionable. In Howards End, Evie's weekend wedding at Onitron represents the Edwardian flair for lavish entertaining.

Despite his flamboyant social life, King Edward took an active part in important political issues. Well-traveled and fluent in several languages, the king participated in international affairs and helped establish better relations with France. The alliance with France became crucial as England felt increasingly challenged by the German economy in world markets. The threat of German dominance in Europe seemed real as Germany built up its navy and formed alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy. The battle lines were being drawn for World War I, and an uneasy atmosphere pervaded all of Europe.

On the domestic front, one issue that captured the king's attention was the acute, widespread poverty in England. High unemployment plagued the urban areas, and welfare did not yet exist. Only a relatively small percentage of the population could live the opulent, glamorous lifestyle made fashionable by the king and his friends. The gap between the rich and the poor grew rapidly during this time; the rich were getting richer by investing in various moneymaking schemes in overseas markets throughout the Empire. Many people were troubled by the fact that poverty should be so common during a time of unprecedented prosperity. King Edward drew public attention to the issue by personally visiting some of the worst slums in London and reporting his experience to the House of Lords. He became a dedicated member of the Royal Commissions, whose task it was to alleviate the problems of the poor, and he supported the idea of state aid for the aged poor, which later became one of the first forms of welfare.

Social Change during the Edwardian Era

The Edwardian Era was a time of great social and political change. Industrialization, which had begun in the nineteenth century, forced many people to leave their farms for employment in the cities. By 1910, the majority of the population lived in urban areas. London, particularly, was expanding rapidly, and urban sprawl became a problem. The new tramway system and "tube train," which partly alleviated traffic congestion in downtown London, facilitated the growth of suburbia. A dramatic restructuring of downtown London occurred to accommodate more people and more new businesses, and many old buildings were torn down in the process. When the Schlegels' lease expires on Wickham Place, Margaret tells Ruth Wilcox that she supposes Wickham Place will be torn down and a new apartment building will be built in its place.

At the same time, many new inventions, such as the telephone, typewriter, electric motor, and the automobile, revolutionized daily life. Labor-saving devices such as the gas cooker and the vacuum cleaner allowed more time for leisure activities. In the growing business economy, the typewriter and the telephone were great assets, and opportunities for office workers grew. Many women filled these jobs, happy to leave the labor-intensive, low-paying jobs in the garment industry. Even well-to-do women began to pursue work outside the home. No longer content with only their embroidery or painting lessons, many wealthy women began opening their own businesses.

A dominant issue during the Edwardian Era was the issue of women's suffrage, and many women became involved in the movement. Early on, the suffrage campaign split into two factions, one group more militant than the other in its methods. The militant group, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, employed tactics designed to attract widespread attention to the cause. Known as the "suffragettes," they began by heckling political meetings, breaking windows, and chaining themselves to railings. After 1911, however, women still had not received the vote, so the suffragettes initiated more violent strategies. The nation was shocked when they resorted to committing arson, cutting telephone wires, slashing paintings in public galleries, and throwing bombs. Imprisoned suffragettes held hunger strikes, which led to forcible feedings, which in turn led to fierce public debate. Finally, in 1918, women over 30 were given the right vote; women 21 and over were finally extended the same right in 1928. In Howards End, the Schlegel sisters are keenly interested in the suffrage issue and believe in equality for women, while the Wilcoxes dismiss the idea of women voting as pure nonsense.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1910: The British Empire includes India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, parts of Africa and Indonesia, and many islands scat tered across the globe.

    Today: Many countries formerly a part of the British Empire have achieved sovereignty but hold membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of independent and dependent nations which recognize the United Kingdom of Great Britain as Head of the Commonwealth.
  • 1910: The cost of a Rolls Royce is approxi mately 1,100 British pounds; less expensive motorcars can be had for approximately 200 British pounds.

    Today: The cost of a Rolls Royce is approximately 125,000 British pounds; less expensive cars can be had for approximately 6,000 British pounds.
  • 1910: A college education at Oxford or Cambridge University is reserved only for the wealthy.

    Today: Scholarships and aid from state funds have made an Oxford or Cambridge education much more affordable.
  • 1910: For the first time in British history, a majority of the population lives in urban areas.

    Today: Approximately 80 percent of the British population lives in urban areas.

Critical Overview

Howards End was critically very well received in England upon its publication in 1910. Critics declared it the best of Forster's novels, with some proclaiming it Forster's masterpiece. An unsigned review in The Times Literary Review stated that Forster's "highly original talent" had found "full and ripe expression" with Howards End. Forster had begun to emerge as one of the greatest English novelists of his day.

In general, reviewers praised Forster's highly detailed and accurate portrayal of Edwardian society in the novel. "In subtle, incisive analysis of class distinctions, manners, and conventions, he is simply inimitable," proclaimed the Morning Leader in an unsigned review of Howards End. Forster also gained recognition for his creation of believable, compelling characters; his considerable powers of perception and imagination, especially concerning the complexity of human nature and relationships; and his keen wit and sense of humor, which he employed to great effect in his sometimes satirical depiction of England's upper classes. His poetical style and beautiful descriptions were singled out for praise, also. The Times Literary Review noted the "odd charming vein of poetry which slips delicately in and out of his story, showing itself for a moment in the description of a place or a person, and vanishing the instant it has said enough to suggest something rare and romantic and intangible about the person or the place."

Although the majority of reviews were extremely favorable, some critics felt certain aspects of plot development in Howards End seemed unrealistic. General criticism was expressed over whether Margaret would actually marry Henry, or whether Helen, a cultured Edwardian lady, would submit to a sexual encounter with a lower-middle class man like Leonard Bast. Others cited the sequence of events beginning with the highly coincidental death of Leonard, the resulting imprisonment of Charles, and Henry's subsequent "breakdown" as too convenient. Many reviewers found the resolution of the story somewhat artificial, "not representative," but "rather melodramatic." They questioned whether the Wilcox and Schlegel families could indeed come together at Howards End and live happily ever after. But even critics who found these plot developments implausible still endorsed the novel as a whole, with some admitting they were nitpicking at an otherwise great work.

Howards End remains one of Forster's most important novels, along with A Passage to India. Even though Forster published no more novels after A Passage to India, his popularity grew steadily in England and expanded to America with the publication of Lionel Trilling's book of criticism, E.M. Forster. Forster's novels, established early as classics, concern themselves with the mythic and archetypal aspects of human experience and all its complexities. His formidable talents as a writer include his realistic, yet ironical and satirical portraits of Edwardian society, a talent that aligns him with such great novelists as Jane Austen, and marks his novels as descendants of the English "novel of manners." Forster's novels are distinguished by their intense personal quality, their poetical style, their humor, insight, and intelligence as well as their committed humanism. Frederick P.W. McDowell has written that readers are attracted to Forster's works because of "a fascination exerted by characters who grip our minds; a wit and beauty present in an always limpid style; a passionate involvement with life in all its variety; a view of existence alive to its comic incongruities and to its tragic implications; and a steady adherence to humanistic values."

Film adaptations of Forster's work, including the Merchant Ivory production of Howards End, have widened Forster's audience. The posthumous publication of his letters, two short story collections, and a novel, Maurice, has continued his legacy. Widely considered a literary genius, Forster's works place him in the company of other great modern writers such as Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence.


Jane Elizabeth Dougherty

Dougherty is a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University. In this essay, she discusses Forster's depictions of the characters' relationships to their dwelling places in Howards End.

Daniel Born notes that "discussion of values in Howards End is never … pursued apart from a material context of physical living space." In Howards End, a novel which takes its name from the Wilcox family's country house, the "material contexts" of the characters and their relationships to these material contexts defines each of the three families: the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts. As Michael Levenson notes, Howards End is a novel "not of three classes, but of three households." Throughout the novel, each of the three families is defined by their relationships to their physical living spaces. These differing relationships are, in fact, shown to be in conflict in the novel, and this conflict is resolved only uneasily by the novel's end.

The novel begins with Helen's descriptions of Howards End, where she has gone to visit the Wilcoxes. In the opening paragraphs of her first letter to Margaret, she writes:

It isn't going to be what we expected. It is old and little, and altogether delightful—red brick…. From hall you go right or left into dining-room or drawing-room. Hall itself is practically a room. You open another door in it, and there are the stairs going up in a sort of tunnel to the first-floor. Three bedrooms in a row there, and three attics in a row above. That isn't all the house really, but it's all that one notices—nine windows as you look up from the front garden.

Then there's a very big wych-elm—to the left as you look up—leaning a little over the house, and standing on the boundary between the garden and meadow. I quite love that tree already. Also ordinary elms, oaks—no nastier than ordinary oaks—pear trees, apples trees, and a vine…. I only want to show that it isn't the least what we expected. Why did we settle that their house would be all gables and wiggles, and their garden all gamboge-coloured paths? I believe simply because we associate them with expensive hotels—Mrs. Wilcox trailing in beautiful dresses down long corridors, Mr. Wilcox bullying porters, etc.

Helen's letter to her sister shows that the Schlegels have spent some time speculating on what Howards End was going to be like, based on their acquaintance with the house's owners. Clearly, the Schlegels believe that one's house is, or should be, a reflection of one's personality, of one's personal relations. Howards End does not seem the type of house that Wilcoxes would live in, and it is true that only Mrs. Wilcox has a personal relationship with Howards End. The house has stood for centuries, sheltering Mrs. Wilcox's ancestors, who worked the land and lived in close relationship to it. The romanticized and pastoral Howards End stands in contrast to the ever-changing landscape of London. Of the Schlegels' house, Wickham Place, the narrator says

Their house was in Wickham Place, and fairly quiet, for a lofty promontory of buildings separated it from a main thoroughfare. One had the sense of a backwater, or rather of an estuary, whose waters flowed in from the visible sea, and ebbed into a profound silence while the waves without were still beating. Though the promontory consisted of flats—expensive, with cavernous entrance halls, full of concierges and palms—it fulfilled its purpose, and gained for the older houses opposite a certain measure of peace. These, too, would be swept away in time, and another promontory would arise upon their site, as humanity piled itself higher and higher on the precious soil of London.

The sea is a recurring metaphor in the novel: as when Margaret says that they "stand upon money as upon islands," the sea represents the ever-changing and threatening reality of modern life. The Schlegels, in their house on Wickham Place, are protected from the roiling sea of modern life, and their house is another island upon which they stand. Yet the Schlegels' house is constantly threatened by the "sea" around it: they will eventually lose their lease, and their house will be torn down to build more flats. The ever-increasing London masses have lost their relationship to the "precious soil" on which they live, and as a result lost what Frederick Crews calls "the last fortress of individualism in a world of urban sameness." Mrs. Wilcox reacts with horror when Margaret tells her the Schlegels will lose their house:

"It is monstrous, Miss Schlegel; it isn't right. I had no idea that this was hanging over you. I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father's house—it oughtn't to be allowed. It is worse than dying. I would rather die than—Oh, poor girls! Can what they call civilization be right, if people mayn't die in the room where they were born? My dear, I am so sorry—

It seems that Mrs. Wilcox is about to say that she would rather die than be parted from her house, but in fact she has been parted from it, because her husband has decided they should take a flat in London. The forces of "civilization," in the person of Mr. Wilcox, are stronger than the forces of continuity and individualism. The other Wilcoxes do not have Mrs. Wilcox's reverence for Howards End, and at the end of her life, Ruth chooses to leave Howards End to Margaret, believing Margaret to be her spiritual heir. Ruth's husband and children do not understand this decision, seeing Howards End solely as a piece of property—not a very useful or valuable one, but one which legally belongs to them. They decide to disregard their mother's wish, and do not inform Margaret of Mrs. Wilcox's bequest.

Two years after the novel's action commences, the Schlegels do lose their house, and become subject to the threatening sea of modern life. In this, they become like the Basts, of whose flat the narrator says that "it struck that shallow makeshift note that is so often heard in the modern dwelling-place. It had been too easily gained, and could be relinquished too easily." The Basts, who are always barely able to survive financially, do not have any islands on which to stand. When they are financially ruined, they lose their flat and do not have the means to let another one. The Schlegels feel spiritually and emotionally bereft when they lose their house, but they can get another one; the Basts do not have the luxury of ever living in a house that is meaningful to them, though Leonard would like to. Perry Meisel notes of Bast that he is "a grossly thematic reminder that the state of one's psyche and of one's economy are disastrously intertwined." Bast's tentative hold on financial solvency is echoed in his tentative interest in, and acquisition of, culture: like his flat, Bast's quest for meaning in his life can also be all-too-easily lost in the Basts' struggle for survival.

Like the Basts' flat, the various dwelling-places of the Wilcoxes have all been easily gained and can be easily relinquished, with the exception of Howards End. Henry Wilcox values property not for its meaning, but for its use, and he often decides that property he has acquired is unsuitable for his needs. As Levenson notes, Wilcox, unlike Leonard Bast, is a beneficiary, rather than a victim, of the ever-changing nature of modern life. When Henry and Margaret are engaged, Margaret keenly wants to settle into a house of her own, but they never seem to find one to which she is allowed to become attached. The differences in their attitudes toward Oniton, a house Henry has acquired, completely sum up the differences in their characters. Henry's attitude toward Oniton is perfectly prosaic:

Oniton had been a discovery of Mr. Wilcox's—a discovery of which he was not altogether proud. It was up towards the Welsh border, and so difficult of access that he had concluded it must be something special. A ruined castle stood in the grounds. But having got there, what was one to do? The shooting was bad, the fishing indifferent, and women-folk reported the scenery as nothing much. The place turned out to be in the wrong part of Shropshire, damn it, and though he never damned his own property aloud, he was only waiting to get it off his hands, and then to let fly. Evie's marriage was its last appearance in public. As soon as a tenant was found, it became a house for which he never had had much use, and had less now, and like Howards End, faded into Limbo.

Henry bases his opinion of Oniton on the property's use to him: whether he can entertain business guests in it, whether it increases his status, whether it offers him sufficient recreation. When he decides not to live at Oniton, he does not give it up, but lets it to a tenant so he can derive an income from it. It is as if actually living in a house is a poor investment, when one can rent it out and get money from it. The narrator notes that the Wilcoxes are an imperial family, always looking for new parts of England to conquer, as the English have conquered the globe. Henry's attitude towards his home at Oniton contrasts sharply with Margaret's:

Margaret was fascinated with Oniton. She had said that she loved it, but it was rather its romantic tension that held her. The rounded Druids of whom she had caught glimpses in her drive, the rivers hurrying down from them to England, the carelessly modelled masses of the lower hills, thrilled her with poetry. The house was insignificant, but the prospect from it would be an eternal joy, and she thought of all the friends she would have to stop in it, and of the conversion of Henry himself to a rural life. Society, too, promised favourably. The rector of the parish had dined with them last night, and she found that he was a friend of her father's, and so knew what to find in her. She liked him. He would introduce her to the town.

What Do I Read Next?

  • In Bloomsbury Recalled (1996), Quentin Bell, son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, offers one of the most recent memoirs recounting the personalities and adventures of that famous literary group.
  • Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness, reveals the injustices of British imperialism in Africa.
  • In Forster's first novel, Where Angels Fear To Tread, (1905) he contrasts the vibrant, free life of Italians with the artificial, hypocritical and bourgeois life of the suburban Londoners who visit an Italian village.
  • Forster's novel, The Longest Journey, published in 1907 tells the story of two half brothers, one of them illegitimate.
  • A Room with a View is Forster's 1908 novel about a young woman's love affair and her struggle with Victorian conventions.
  • Forster's last and most highly regarded novel, A Passage to India (1924) details the social and historical milieu of colonial India, and one Englishwoman's experience there.
  • Forster's posthumously published novel, Maurice (1971) tells the story of a young man's dis covery of his own homosexuality.
  • Fellow Bloomsbury Group member Lytton Strachey revolutionized the genre of biography with his Eminent Victorians, offering unusually unflattering portraits of four British cultural heroes, including Florence Nightingale. Critics suggest that his incisive criticisms take on the difference between mere "moral righteousness" and "true humanitarianism."
  • Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, is at once the story of Clarissa Dalloway's party and a critique of the British social system.
  • Woolf's 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse focuses on the inner life and experiences of an English family.

Margaret is stirred by the poetry of Oniton, and moreover, the community surrounding it links her to her father, because the rector had been a friend of his. Though she recognizes that the house itself is insignificant, she thinks not at all of the property's value in the real world, but only of its personal meaning to her. The Schlegels are interested in poetry and personal relations, the Wilcoxes in prose and investments. Yet, as for the first Mrs. Wilcox, her husband's wishes take precedence over Margaret's. They do not settle at Oniton. Margaret becomes estranged from her sister Helen because she has allied herself with the Wilcoxes: she no longer tries to influence Henry, but acquiesces to his wishes. It is only when Margaret and Helen meet at Howards End that Margaret sees that the Schlegels are threatened in a world run by Wilcoxes. She and Helen are reconciled to each other at Howards End, surrounded by their furniture and other possessions, when they realize that "they never could be parted because their love was rooted in common things." It is the history they share, represented by what they have jointly owned and jointly experienced, that binds them together. Because they value this common history, they also value Howards End, which is linked to the history of Mrs. Wilcox's family, to organic relationships rooted in a rural life. As Wilfred Stone notes, "[t]hough the Wilcoxes hold the 'title-deeds' and the 'door-keys,' these evidences of ownership do not impress the Schlegels," who instead value the meanings they can create from the physical space in which they live, meanings which can be more easily created at Howards End than in the impersonal and temporary dwelling-places of London.

The conclusion of the novel sees Howards End rescued from limbo: it becomes a home in which Henry Wilcox, the Schlegel sisters, and the child of Leonard Bast can live together in a life rooted to the precious soil and contained in a house which has witnessed the births and deaths of generations. Yet as Born notes, "that Forster interrupts his final scene with awareness of the encroaching London mass suggests he is not entirely happy with this one-sided vision of serene, private, poeticized culture." Though the Schlegels have conquered the Wilcoxes, the forces of "civilization" still loom in the distance. Though Howards End may represent an idealized solution to the problems of a modernizing England, the sea still threatens the island on which the new family stands.

Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.

Duke Maskell

In the following excerpt, Maskell evaluates Howards End for Forster's beliefs found in Forster's "What I Believe" and finds that Forster fails to embody his beliefs in the novel.

Mr Forster's place in the canon is an unusual one. He enjoys, securely, a reputation of the most insecure kind—that of a major figure—definitely that—who falls just short—but clearly short—of true greatness. A reputation which might be expected to stimulate objections from all quarters stimulates them from virtually none. No one, apparently, wants to see him promoted into the ranks of the acknowledged masters and hardly anyone wants to see him pushed out of the canon altogether. He is the occasion of no very serious or very interesting debate. When he is praised, he is praised extravagantly but harmlessly…. Mr Forster's peculiar reputation rests, it might be guessed, not so much on what he's done as on what he's been taken to represent; and it would be a mean spirit indeed who, given what he has been taken to represent, would look with an unfriendly eye upon what he's done.

Looked upon so, Mr. Forster has done little more than generate in himself and others an enthusiasm for platitudes. Let us consider two documents, 'What I Believe', Mr Forster's personal manifesto, and Howards End, the novel in which he tries most directly to embody the values of the manifesto.

In the essay he says he's in favour of private decencies, personal relationships, people who are sensitive and creative—the lovers, artists and homemakers—good temper, good will, tolerance, loyalty, sympathy, friendship and Love the Beloved Republic and against public affairs, Great Men, force and violence and people who see life in terms of power…. We have to take Mr Forster's word for it that he knows not only the words for love and sympathy, but the things themselves. It's only by turning to the novel that we have any chance of bringing the essay's claims into question; it's there we are forced to turn for the knowledge that will make good these claims. And, turning and looking, what we find is not quite a vacancy but yet more fine sentiments and, dominating the palpables of tone, characterization and plot, an assortment of snobberies and a pervasive self-satisfaction.

The intentions of Howards End are explicit and impeccable. It urges its readers to 'only connect …' to build within themselves 'the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion' for then 'love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire' and, like the essay, the novel insists 'it is the private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond our daily vision'. Its heroes and heroines are those who 'attempt personal relations', its villains 'the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little'; its triumphs occur when 'truer relationships gleam'.

But fine sentiments and would-be noble phrases don't even make good feelings let alone good novels. And if, in an essay, a writer can't get away with just naming the things he believes in, how much less so can he in a novel, when his 'beliefs' must be acted out as particular, concrete instances? Talk, for the novelist even more obviously than for the essayist, won't suffice. He must deliver the goods. And if he can't, if he doesn't really own the feelings he lays claim to, his novel will betray him…. Howards End betrays Forster. He preaches in it love and sympathy and is caught furtively practising the everyday, casual snobberies of any other upper-class Cambridge don of the turn of the century.

The part of the novel that offers the most direct (but by no means the only) challenge to his sympathies is the story of his near working-class figure Leonard Bast. From an essay, 'The Challenge of our Time', one might think him well-equipped to present class relations in England. He says of his own education, for instance, that though it was humane 'it was imperfect, inasmuch as we none of us realized our economic position. In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts, and we did not realize that all the time we were exploiting the poor of our own country and the backward races abroad, and getting bigger profits from our investments than we should'. But, again as Lawrence said, trust the tale not the teller. It is one thing to describe a case of social injustice in an essay, and in terms which were, after all, even in 1910, fairly common property, another thing entirely to write a novel in which the characters are seen, have to be seen, not just as illustrations of a thesis but as creatures who, whatever their circumstances, have the same human identity and physiognomy as their author. But Forster, for all his good intentions, can't see that the Basts and he do share a common condition. They are objects to him, objects to feel things for and to have attitudes towards—it makes no difference whether he sympathizes with them, feels sorry for them, condescends to them or sneers at them. These apparently divergent feelings belong to a single paradigm, one governed by the powerful unconscious assumptions of an upper-class world-view which divides the world into 'us' and 'them'. Whatever Forster 'feels for' the Basts he feels securely as one of 'us' regarding 'them'. The Basts are nothing, have nothing, represent nothing that could bring into question for Forster himself and his world. And having no authority over their author they are dead as characters.

Forster's good intentions are, on their own terms, genuine enough. But the good intentions only work as a leavening upon the snobbery. The 'facts' of Leonard Bast's 'case' are obviously meant as social criticism but, as presented, they draw our attention, not without creating a certain risibility, to Mr Forster as commentator rather than to society as commented-on. Leonard, Mr Forster tells us, was 'inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable' and his wife Jacky is 'brutally stupid'. Not only is Leonard deprived of his livelihood by an unjust and all-powerful social machine and not only is he without the cultivation of the Schlegels but, additionally, he has none of the rude vigour, physical or psychological, of the middle-class barbarians like Charles Wilcox, without whose spirit 'life might never have moved out of protoplasm'.

The other boundary of [Bast's] social world, the proletarian 'abyss' where his origins are among the 'submerged', is only a threat and a teror to him…. Somehow, he has entirely escaped being influenced by his family background. We are told certain things about it—that a grandfather was a Lincolnshire farm-labourer, his father a Cockney tradesman, a brother a lay-reader and that two sisters married commercial travellers—but none of this information is active within Forster's characterization of him. It is only supplied at all because Forster thinks he ought to give him a genealogy. Once he has given it he promptly forgets it because he doesn't know how to use it. Leonard isn't seen as a son or brother at all let alone one born into a particular class. The point isn't that Leonard is presented as one thing when he ought to have been presented as another, that his presentation is 'unrealistic', but that what is missing from him as a person isn't presented by Forster as missing. Properly speaking, it isn't missing from the character but from the book. Howards End nowhere contains any sense of what the alternative to Leonard might be. Leonard doesn't have merely an incomplete relation to his family and class presented as such but no relation at all.

He is without any moral or emotional history because Forster, although he would like to be writing about 'a real man', can't help running off another version of that comic Cockney stereotype which is (perhaps 'was') so indelibly printed on the middle-class imagination…. Forster wants to be generous towards Leonard, wants to present a young man with a sense of honour and of self, but the materials available to him are woefully inadequate. Leonard's would-be Cockney is stilted and inanely self-preoccupied, the sense units short and repetitive and the vocabulary picked up from the 'Music Hall' or a dictionary of Cockney English, picked up and thrown down in a heap without any sense of how, when or where the words are used. It's a fair measure of Forster's linguistic insensitivity that it's not clear whether 'in trouble' does or does not mean 'pregnant'.

Forster's tone, characteristically, is condescending, and at its worst when he is paying Leonard compliments: 'the naive and sweet-tempered boy for whom Nature intended him', 'no one felt uneasy as he tittupped along the pavements, the heart of a man ticking fast in his chest', 'within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies' books—the spirit that led Jefferies to write them'. The trouble with these remarks is not, perhaps, so much their snobbery as their simple fatuity:

it is an adventure for a clerk to walk for a few hours in darkness. You may laugh at him, you who have slept nights out on the veldt, with your rifle beside you and all the atmosphere of adventure pat. And you also may laugh who think adventures silly. But do not be surprised if Leonard is shy whenever he meets you, and if the Schlegels rather than Jacky hear about the dawn.

This from someone who is supposed to be a major modern English novelist, preceded in importance only by Conrad, James, Lawrence and Joyce, someone often compared to Lawrence and Jane Austen. It's difficult to say what is most ridiculous about the passage, its sloppiness about the darkness and dawn, its willingness to take adventures on the veldt seriously, its arch pretence that we might meet Leonard Bast or, what we are presently concerned with, its condescension for clerks.

[Forster's] dominant attitude to the Basts is made up of a distaste for the unattractive surfaces of working-class life and an amused superiority at its bad taste….

The presence in the tone of the condescension and the contempt is, of course, bound up with the absence from the characterization of any 'solidity of specification'…. Forster condescends towards the Basts because they are stock figures for whom condescension is the stock response. His compassion and concern for people such as they is nothing more than feeling sorry for them for not being like himself. He both pities and admires Leonard but he pities him for lacking his own spiritual and moral advantages and admires him for wanting them. It is not Jane Austen whom he resembles but Emma Woodhouse: she too, thinks 'a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross'. At bottom, Forster's response to the Basts is the same as hers to the poor cottagers of Highbury: 'These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good'….

That Forster's concern for the victims of social injustice is make-believe is evidenced not only by his presentation of the Basts but also by the relationship their story bears to the rest of the novel. What really matters to Forster is not the fate of the Basts but that of the Wilcoxes and Schlegels. The Basts are just a side-show. The imaginative centre of Howards End is the division between and reconciliation of its two middle-class families. Whether the reconciliation between Wilcox and Schlegel, 'prose' and 'passion', that Margaret Schlegel works for and the novel welcomes is seen as one between social groups, the entrepreneurs and the intelligentsia, or psychological types, or whether it is read as a command to the individual to lead a whole life, it is equally irrelevant to the problems of the Basts, which are caused by an unfair division of wealth and labour and which cannot be solved without upsetting the life led by the Schlegels and, one might add, the public of Howards End.

Far from wishing the removal of the injustices the Basts suffer from, Howards End wants to see preserved a world that permits the kind of 'personal' life enjoyed by Margaret Schlegel—even if the price is being reconciled to the necessity of the Wilcoxes and the injustices attendant upon the circumstances in which they flourish. Margaret in an argument with her sister Helen says,

If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died for thousands of years, you and I couldn't sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No—perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.

In these remarks, as in so many others, it's hard to sort out the bad faith from what is merely inept. Margaret avoids (and Forster avoids) having to comment on the morality of the social relationships that subsist under capitalism by appealing in a very general way to the desirability of 'progress'; she gives the credit for 'progress' to the entrepreneur class and measures 'progress' by the security of existence enjoyed by 'us literary people'. Her last sentence could be anybody's recognition of what side his bread was buttered on but it's presented to us as the mark of her moral lucidity. Forster puts no distance between himself and this would-be clearheadedness; on the contrary, he shows it triumphing over Helen's muddy-minded liberalism. Helen not only gets worsted in the argument but by the end of the book has come round to 'appreciating' Henry Wilcox just as Margaret does.

Forster is critical of the Wilcoxes (that is to say, he often sneers at them) but he is critical not so much of their social role as of their personal inadequacies. Yet were Henry and Charles Wilcox the most loving-hearted and cultivated of men, their economic relationship with the Basts would still be a suspect one. Denying the Wilcoxes any likeable personal qualities isn't a social criticism; it's merely an intellectual's snobbery. It obscures the social significance of business, is an evasion of those very issues which, pursued, might have led Forster to see the role of the Schlegels, his rentier figures, as a parasitic one. As it is, he has it both ways. He sneers at the Wilcoxes for lacking the cultivation he's got and admires them for having a certain kind of confidence and power which he's without but which makes his kind of life possible—and admires them for this, moreover, in the language of Room at the Top: Charles is 'dark, clean-shaven and seemed accustomed to command', Henry is 'one of those men who know the principal hotel by instinct' and whose 'management' of practical things is always 'excellent'. As people, the Wilcoxes may be unattractive but as representatives of the capitalist spirit they are, as Lawrence said in a letter to Forster, 'glorified'.

Forster's failure with the Basts and the social issues their story raises is hardly attributable merely to a lack of firsthand experience. Nor is it necessary to explain it in Marxist terms as a 'necessary' consequence of his 'objective' class position. It seems to me a failure of intelligence and imagination, a failure to be a good enough novelist. Forster's presentation of his middle-class characters is just as coarse as that of his lower-class ones.

Forster's authorial comments regularly show only a perverse pleasure in scoring off his characters. It is one thing to dramatize a character who is 'rubbishy', say Mrs Elton in Emma, which requires both that one be a novelist and have a grasp of the possible other case, quite another to invent characters only in order to call them names.

In Forster's account of the Basts his lack of curiosity in the lower classes creates a moral vacuum which is filled by the stock snobberies of a rich man; in his account of the Wilcoxes his lack of curiosity in businessmen creates a vacuum which is filled by the stock snobberies of an intellectual and aesthete. The Basts and the Wilcoxes are unreal. And Forster's sympathy and respect for them are unreal. But the moral failure isn't additional to the artistic one. The possession of sufficient moral imagination to put oneself in the place of the unfamiliar and to deal with it generously … is the very condition of being able to give it an air of reality.

Forster's failure with his middle-class characters isn't limited, though, to the morally unfamiliar, to the Wilcoxes. He fails just as badly with the Schlegels too. The Schlegel sisters and Mrs Wilcox are just as unreal as the Basts and the other Wilcoxes. Forster can no more give the air of reality to upper-class decency and cultivation than he can to upper-class business or lower-class aspiration. And in this instance the failure to cope with the supposedly familiar, the supposedly humane and sensitive Schlegels, is identical with the failure to cope with the unfamiliar, with the Basts and Wilcoxes. Not himself having a sufficiently sensitive and generous imagination to render the Basts and Wilcoxes decently, how could Forster ever have successfully embodied sensitivity, decency and imagination in the Schlegels? His failure with the Schlegels is not so much a failure to recognize the place of private decencies and personal relations in the larger social context (his is not the case of Jane Austen) but a failure to represent them at all, a failure to know what they really are. Forster's grasp of the private life as embodied in the Schlegels and Mrs Wilcox (the very heart of his book) is every bit as unsure as his grasp of business life and the life of the lower classes. There is no more knowledge of love, sympathy, affection, etc. in the portrait of the Schlegels than in 'What I Believe'. There are merely gestures on a larger scale, gestures whose import has equally to be taken on trust, gestures that are hopelessly inadequate for the job they are asked to do.

Put to the test of embodying his 'beliefs' in a novel Forster is too much the creature of his upbringing, and not enough of a novelist, to do more than display, side by side, the aimless good intentions and the incurable snobberies of a no-doubt kindly but fundamentally self-regarding, upper-class English intellectual of the turn of the century. Howards End has the interest of a social document but none, that I can see, of the interests of a novel. The most interesting question about it is how it got its reputation, and particularly its reputation as a novel which embodies a spirit concerned with what is 'decent, human, and enlarging in daily conduct'. A large part of the answer must be, presumably, that its American readers are typically innocent of English life, particularly our class system, and are often infatuated with our upper classes, and that its English readers, being exclusively middle-class, find their own world-view mirrored in it. One enjoys reading a fairy-story, the other enjoys looking at a flattering portrait of himself. Both, no doubt, find agreeable the mildness of its social criticism and the generous vagueness of its solutions—only connect, let truer relationships gleam, build that rainbow bridge, and all may be well.

A Passage to India seems to me equally unreal, equally as factitious and unnecessary a novel. Its characters are equally stereotyped and its incidents just as merely illustrative of the stereotyped. Reading it, I have the impression, as new characters and incidents are introduced, of watching a series of exempla pass by, of listening to a succession of 'points' being made in illustration of the double thesis that the principled Anglo-Indians are coarse and the unprincipled Indians sensitive. Neither side seems to me to be dealt with any greater understanding than the Wilcoxes and Basts. Aziz seems to me just as insensitive and prejudiced a portrait of a member of a subject race as Leonard Bast is of a member of a lower class. He even shares Leonard's taste in paintings: 'Aziz in an occidental moment would have hung Maud Goodmans on the walls'. Robust, self-sufficient Indians have as little place in Forster's world as robust, self-sufficient Cockneys. Forster's Indians 'are deprived of their adulthood, live in a perpetual childhood'. The phraseology of his 'positives' in A Passage to India is just as empty and unfulfilled as of those in Howards End: 'the sanctity of personal relations', 'the fire of good fellowship in their eyes', 'the divine lips of beauty', 'centuries of carnal embracement', 'a sense of unity, of kinship with the heavenly bodies', etc. A Passage to India seems to me as comprehensively not a novel as Howards End, fully as much a thing of unrealized intentions.

Source: Duke Maskell, "Mr Forster's Fine Feelings," in Cambridge Quarterly, Spring, 1971, pp. 222-35.


Born, Daniel, "Private Gardens, Public Swamps: Howards End and the Revaluation of Liberal Guilt," Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1992, pp. 141-159.

Bradbury, Malcolm, "Howards End," in Forster: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Malcolm Bradbury, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1966, pp. 131.

Crews, Frederick, E.M. Forster: The Perils of Humanism, Princeton University Press, 1962.

Levenson, Michael, "Liberalism and Symbolism in Howards End," in his Modernism and the Fate of Individuality, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 78-93.

McDowell, Frederick P. W., "'Glimpses of the Diviner Wheels': Howards End," in E. M. Forster, revised edition, Twayne Publishing, 1982, pp. 82.

―――――――――, "'Unexplained Riches and Unused Methods of Release': Nonfictional Prose and General Estimate," in E. M. Forster, revised edition, Twayne Publishing, 1982, pp. 149-159.

Meisel, Perry, "Howards End: Private Worlds and Public Languages," in his The Myth of the Modern: A Study in British Literature and Criticism after 1850, Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 173-182.

Morning Leader, "The part and the whole," October 28, 1910, pp. 3.

Review, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 459, October 27, 1910, pp. 421.

Stone, Wilfred, "Howards End: Red-Bloods and Mollycoddles," in his The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E.M. Forster, Stanford University Press, 1966.

For Further Study

Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel, E. Arnold, 1963.

A collection of lectures delivered by Forster on the art of the novelist.

Forster, E.M., Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography, 1797–1887, Harcourt Brace, 1956.

This biography of Forster's paternal aunt, Marianne Thornton, is also a study of Forster's own intellectual origins and family lineage.

Furbank, P. N., E. M. Forster: A Life, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

The definitive biography of E. M. Forster.

Gardner, Philip, ed., E.M. Forster: The Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

This book is a collection of mostly early criticism on Forster's works.

Lago, Mary, and P.N. Furbank, eds., Selected Letters of E.M. Forster, 2 Vols., Belknap Press, 1983–1985.

A collection of E. M. Forster's letters.

Howards End

views updated May 23 2018

Howards End

by E. M. Forster


A novel, set in England, during the early 1900s; published in 1910.


A country house plays a pivotal role in the intertwined lives of two middle-class families and a struggaling clerk.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born in London in 1879, Edward Morgan Forster was the only son of the architect Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster and Alice Clara Whichelo. The future novelist was only one year old when his father died of tuberculosis; in 1882, the infant Forster and his mother moved to Rooksnest, a country house in Hertfordshire, where he was brought up by his mother and paternal aunts. Forster attended Tonbridge School as a day pupil, later matriculating at King’s College, Cambridge University. From 1900 to 1901, he traveled with his mother extensively throughout Europe, including Italy, Sicily, and Austria. In 1902 he took a position as an instructor with the Working Men’s College in London, while pursuing publication as an author. His first short story “Albergo Empedocle” was printed the following year in the literary journal Temple Bar. Forster also contributed essays and short stories to the newly founded Independent Review. His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, was published in 1905, and was followed in quick succession by The Longest Journey (1907) and A Room with a View (1908). Howards End, his fourth novel and first major success, was published in 1910. During World War I, Forster spent three years as a civilian war worker in Egypt. Two visits to India, in 1912 and 1921, led to his highly lauded novel A Passage to lndia (1910). During World War II, Forster won respect for his lack of sympathy with all forms of totalitarianism, and in 1946 he received an honorary fellowship that enabled him to live in Cambridge. Forster died in Coventry, England, in 1970. Among his other achievements, Howard’s End had established him as a master of domestic realism in his time.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Edwardian Age—an overview

Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign ended with her death in 1901; her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, succeeded her as Edward VII. Although the new king of England was close to 60 years old when he took the throne and was to rule only until 1910, during his brief reign he nonetheless left his own mark on the age. After the horrors of World War I (1914-18), the English looked back on the Edwardian Age as a golden time of ease, luxury, lavish display, and perpetual sunshine. While this nostalgic view may have been true for the wealthy, titled, and socially ambitious who found their way into the king’s social circle, matters were quite different for political activists, lower class workers, and the struggling poor. Literary scholar Alistair M. Duckworth describes the Edwardian period as “a time of social and political strife,” marked by bitter conflicts between Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists, between organized labor and management, between militant suffragists and men equally determined to deny women the voting franchise (Duckworth, p. 3).

The international picture of the time was likewise troubled. Edward VII had assumed the throne in the midst of an international conflict. The Anglo-Boer or South African War (1899-1902), also called the Second War of Liberation, divided Britons at home and exposed British soldiers to the horrors of trench warfare for the first time. Even more ominously, Britain’s relations with Germany were becoming increasingly tense and volatile. The British War Office and Admiralty, both of which regarded Germany’s expansionist policies with alarm, committed Britain to a costly armaments race in anticipation of German threats. Britain’s fears would be realized with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

For better and for worse, the Edwardian Age was also a period of industrial development and rapid urban growth. At the turn of the century, most of Britain’s wealth as a nation was derived from trade and industry rather than from agriculture, although large landowners and aristocrats continued to dominate British government and society. The British themselves had become an urban people: according to the census of 1901, over 25 million people lived in towns, 4.5 million of them in London alone. Ten years later, 41 percent of the population of England and Wales were recorded as living in such industrial areas as London, South-East Lancashire, Mersey-side, the West Midlands, and West Yorkshire (Cecil, p. 43). As more displaced rural workers drifted into the cities in search of employment and housing, the already wretched quality of the overpacked slums and tenements deteriorated still further. Cities were simply not prepared to accommodate the influx of migrant workers; during the 1900s, there was a 15 percent decline in the construction of new housing, despite the acute need for it. Although the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 enabled local authorities to demolish slum property and rebuild, overcrowding continued to be a problem well into the 1910s.

Meanwhile, the metropolis, especially London, was undergoing a rapid expansion, a trend that had begun in the previous century and only accelerated during the dozen or so years leading up to the First World War. A novelist of the time, Frank Swinnerton, speculated as to whether London’s urban sprawl would eventually extend throughout the southern counties and obliterate rural England entirely. Swinnerton even anticipated that the tall houses in the heart of London would have to be demolished and their place taken by “enormous blocks of flats and dwellings ‘built with some beauty’” (Pearsall, p. 57).

Technology also kept pace with the times, as the motorcar—initially a luxury only the rich could afford—became a more familiar sight on British roads, and the flying machine—the prototype of the modern airplane—presented exciting new possibilities in transportation. Although Howards End is a novel of character rather than of historical incident, Forster nonetheless imbues his novel with the issues of the Edwardian period, from the impact of motorcars cherished by the materialistic Wilcoxes, to the relentless urban expansion of London that eventually claims the Schlegels’ family home, to the financial struggles of Leonard Bast, who ultimately finds himself unemployed and adrift in a society marked by conspicuous and extravagant display.

The Edwardian middle class

Like that of the nineteenth century, the British social structure of the early twentieth century was hierarchical. Most Edwardians tended to think of their society as divided into three classes—an aristocratic upper class; a middle class made up of lawyers, physicians, and merchants; and a lower class consisting of laborers and poor workmen. During the Edwardian period, however, the middle class underwent a significant expansion in several ways.

There was a noticeable proliferation of the “lower middle class”: that army of clerks and office workers who were neither factory laborers nor factory owners but who merged into the working class beneath and the prosperous middle class above. There was a pronounced growth of the professions: those lawyers, doctors, teachers, and civil servants whose numbers, qualifications, and incomes were all expanding rapidly at this time. And there was a new plutocracy of super-rich bankers, financiers, and businessmen that emerged (or bought its way) into the traditional aristocracy.

Cannadine, pp. 120-121)

As the era progressed, more and more people began to fall under the umbrella title of “middle class,” despite vast differences in income, occupation, and way of life.

Such diversity often created its own problems within class strata. According to author J.B. Priestley, who grew up during the Edwardian Age, most contemporary tensions originated among this increasingly populous and diverse middle class. Lacking the confidence of their Victorian predecessors, Priestly argues, middle-class Edwardians were quick to denounce startling or unconventional new ideas—artistic, religious, political—that posed a potential challenge to their safely ordered world:

The members of the upper middle class felt that property and position were being threatened. In the lower middle class respectability itself, often newly won, had to be guarded. There was a feeling that religion, the family, decency, social and political stability, the country itself, were all in danger … during these years the English middle classes were at war with themselves. This odd conflict did much to give the Edwardian Age its peculiar character.

(Priestley, p. 87)

Forster demonstrates his own awareness of middle-class tensions and diversity in Howards End. Indeed, his major characters all embody different subcategories of the middle class: the super-rich Wilcoxes amass their wealth through Mr. Wilcox’s business acumen, the idealistic Schlegels lead a cultured existence made possible by sound investments and an independent income, while at the lower end of the spectrum, Leonard Bast toils as a clerk, barely managing to hang on to his hard-won middle-class status. Mutual tolerance between these characters proves difficult, and, in some cases, impossible to achieve. Disillusioned early by the Wilcoxes, Helen Schlegel detests them for their dedication to


First introduced in Britain in the 1890s, the motorcar quickly became the ultimate status symbol for wealthy Edwardians. Most models came from France or Germany, such as the petrol-driven, 4 hp (horsepower) Panhard & Lavassor car that the Honorable Evelyn Ellis purchased In 1895, A devotee of this new vehicle, Ellis backed the motoring industry in Britain with about 20,000 pounds of his own money. Ellis, along with J. A. Koosen—who owned another variety, the Lutzmann—and Sir David Salomons, became one of the country’s earliest and best-known motorists. Exhibitions, motor shows, and the press further exposed motorcars to the public. In November 1895, Autocar magazine was founded, in anticipation of an interested readership. A year later, the speed limit on British roads was increased from 4 mph to 12 mph, to the delight of new motorists and the dismay oí law enforcement officers. The motoring craze escalated in the early years of the twentieth century: in 1904, there were apparently 24,201 cars registered in the United Kingdom, one-third of them in London alone (Pearsall, p. 134). Two years later, that number had almost doubled; again, it was only the rich who could afford to purchase and maintain this new toy at first. “The Edwardian car,” writes one historian, “was expensive to buy, complicated and costly to run.... No gentleman could be expected to mess around in the crude smoking interior of a motor-car, and the new domestic was introduced, the motor servant” (Pearsall, pp. 130-131). His services were frequently invoked, for the Edwardian car tended to be unreliable—tires were continually getting punctured, the engine frequently overheated, and pistons were easily ruined. As the decade progressed and technology advanced, however, sturdier, faster motorcars were built, and motoring enthusiasts eagerly traded in their old cars for bright new models, such as Rolls-Royce’s Silver Ghost.

the outer life of “telegrams and anger” at the expense of human feelings (Forster, Howards End, p. 28); meanwhile, the Wilcox children regard the Schlegels with deep suspicion, especially after Margaret becomes engaged to their father; and the wretched Leonard Bast is ultimately destroyed through his interactions with both families.

Women, property, and inheritance

From Norman times—the late eleventh century—the English Crown encouraged landholders to leave their property to one heir, usually the eldest son, in order to keep the land intact so it could economically support a military force that could come to the aid of the king. This practice, which became known as primogeniture, remained the norm among English landowners for the next 800 years. By the nineteenth century, the Crown had since found other means of protection and support, but landed families still considered primogeniture a means of preserving their name and ancestral greatness, an attitude that persisted until the early twentieth century and was upheld by the legal courts: “So powerful was the hold of the idea [of primogeniture] that, until 1925, by law the land of someone dying without a will went to the eldest son, and middle-class efforts to change the law and have the land divided among all the children were consistently defeated by the old families” (Pool, p. 90).

As a general rule, girls did not inherit the great estates because the line could die out if they remained single, while if they wed, the property would pass to a male outside the family. Having to leave the premises when the new heir took up residence was often a traumatic experience for a woman who had long been attached to the family home (see Sense and Sensibility in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). However, among the middle and lower classes, women could conceivably inherit the family property, as Ruth Wilcox—formerly Howard—does, in the absence of any surviving male heirs. In Forster’s novel, the Howards are presented as belonging to the yeomanry—gentlemen farmers and small landholders—who were a dying breed in the late nineteenth century. Owing to the economic pressures of the Victorian Age (foreign competition, rising agricultural costs, etc.), many yeomen lost their land, descending to the level of rural laborers or becoming tenant farmers to the owners of the large country estates. The Howards’ fate is poignantly implied by the very name of their farm, Howards End. As Miss Avery, the old housekeeper, tells Margaret, the second Mrs. Wilcox, “Things went on [at Howards’ End] until there were no men [left]” (Howards End, p. 287).

With the death of Ruth Wilcox, ownership of Howards End passes to her widower, Henry, again an accepted and established custom of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Traditionally, a woman’s property legally became her husband’s upon marriage. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, the law gradually increased wives’ powers over their possessions. The passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870, 1882, and 1893, in turn, granted wives full rights over

  • Their own earnings after marriage and over money they were willed by others
  • Property they acquired by their own efforts
  • All their own property so that husbands had no rights over anything legally owned by their wives

The Acts also gave women the rights to sue and be sued over property and to enter into property contracts. In the novel, the dying Mrs. Ruth Wilcox seeks to distribute her own property as she pleases, by choosing Margaret Schlegel as the next owner of her beloved Howards End. The unconventional nature of her bequest—a brief note, scribbled in pencil, informing her husband of her wishes—leads her surviving family to disregard her desires and destroy the note.


Ironically, despite the dawn of a new age and the accession of a new monarch, Edwardian attitudes towards sexuality remained largely unchanged from those of the Victorian Age, a circumstance that author Duncan Crow terms “hardly surprising, because the change of a century or the death of a statute does not necessarily invoke a whole new personality in the psyche of a nation” (Crow, p. 171). The same sexual double standard that had prevailed in the nineteenth century was firmly in place during the early twentieth century. Proper young ladies of the middle and upper classes were still expected to have no sexual experience or contact before marriage—during courtship, “a hand around the waist, a kiss, and a fervent pressing of the hand was probably the accepted limit in most cases” (Pool, p. 187). Moreover, the prevailing view, as put forth by Dr. William Acton in the mid-1860s, held that “the majority of women are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind” (Acton in Pool, p. 186). A Scottish gynecologist attempted to refute that claim in the 1890s, reporting that, out of the 190 women who responded to his questions (his original sample consisted of 504 women), 152 admitted that they did have sexual desires, while 134 even admitted that they had orgasms (Pool, 187). Nonetheless, many Victorian and Edwardian men remained convinced that only “harlots” enjoyed the sex act, while “pure women” dreaded it. Certainly, ignorance of sexual matters did not contribute to a proper young woman’s enjoyment of intercourse: most brides went to their wedding nights ill-prepared and frightened.

Abstinence and chastity were not, however, demanded of upper and middle-class men, many of whom engaged in dalliance with domestic servants and lower-class prostitutes. Discretion was expected, however—illicit sexual adventures had to be concealed at all costs: “This was, indeed, the crux of Edwardian morality. To those who could avoid being found out almost everything was permitted. If your vice or indiscretion was exposed, ostracism of some kind was sure to follow” (Cecil, p. 162). The outrageousness of this double standard is illustrated in Forster’s novel: the unmarried, pregnant Helen Schlegel is shunned by her brother-in-law, Henry Wilcox, who has himself been unfaithful to his first wife. As Helen’s enraged sister, Margaret—Henry’s second wife—points out, “You have had a mistress—I forgave you! My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead” (Howards End, p. 322).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel begins with a series of letters written by Helen Schlegel to her older sister, Margaret. While vacationing in Germany the previous spring, the earnest, idealistic Schlegel sisters had made the acquaintance of the prosperous Wilcox family, who later invited the Schlegels to visit them at their country house, Howards End, in Hertfordshire, England. Margaret declines the invitation because she must nurse her ailing brother, Tibby, but Helen accepts. While staying at Howards End, Helen becomes enchanted with the Wilcoxes—the forceful patriarch, Henry; his quiet, self-contained wife, Ruth; and their grown children, Charles, Evie, and Paul. Helen and Paul, the younger son, fall in love, but Helen’s ardor cools when she sees how willing Paul is to back off because he fears his family’s disapproval. Unfortunately, Helen has already written to Margaret about her feelings for Paul, news that sends the sisters’ interfering Aunt Juley down to Hertsfordshire to discuss the matter with Helen herself. An awkward situation subsequently arises, which is partially smoothed over by Mrs. Wilcox. An embarrassed Helen returns to London, having lost her illusions about the Wilcoxes, and the acquaintance between the families cools.

Some months later, the Schlegels also meet Leonard Bast, whose umbrella Helen absent-mindedly filches at a concert both are attending. When Leonard calls to retrieve his umbrella at the Schlegels’ house, the sisters take a keen interest in the young man, especially after they learn that he has intellectual aspirations and wishes to improve himself. Bast, for his part, comes to idealize the cultured Schlegels and despairs of being able to rise above his poverty or disentangle himself from his relationship with Jacky, a vulgar, older woman he has promised to marry. An intellectual from Germany, Herr Schlegel had married an Englishwoman and landed a position as a teacher at a local university, which helps explain his children’s cultured upbringing. Meanwhile, the Wilcoxes have come to London for Charles Wilcox’s wedding and, co-incidentally, rented a flat just opposite the Schlegel home. Although Helen no longer loves Paul, she decides to visit cousins in Germany to avoid an awkward meeting. Mrs. Wilcox, however, informs Margaret that Paul has gone to Nigeria so the former lovers will not encounter each other. What Paul does in Nigeria, which by then had been colonized by the British, remains obscure.

Despite their different interests and personalities, Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret become friends. Mrs. Wilcox is especially sympathetic when she hears the Schlegels will eventually have to leave their London home when their lease expires she invites Margaret to visit her beloved Howards End. Before they can carry out their plans, Mrs. Wilcox falls ill and dies. During her final days, however, Mrs. Wilcox scribbles a note to her husband in which she expresses her wish that Margaret have Howards End. Astonished and rather offended by Mrs. Wilcox’s bequest to a stranger, the Wilcoxes decide to discard the note without telling Margaret of its existence.

Two years pass, during which the Schlegels become slightly better acquainted with Leonard Bast, now married to Jacky and still doggedly pursuing the acquisition of culture. The sisters sense something genuine in Leonard’s spirit, despite his intellectual posturing, and determine to find some way to help him. One evening in London, the sisters unexpectedly encounter Mr. Wilcox again and the subject of Leonard Bast comes up. Mr. Wilcox passes along the information that the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company, at which Bast is employed as a clerk, is unstable and that Bast should find another position elsewhere. The sisters pass along Mr. Wilcox’s advice to Leonard, who resents their interference but adopts their suggestion nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wilcox begins to take an interest in Margaret, actively seeking her company. When he learns she and her siblings will soon have to leave their home and have not found a suitable replacement, he offers them the lease of his own London house, which he has decided to give up when his daughter Evie marries. Margaret goes with Mr. Wilcox to inspect the house; while they are there, Mr. Wilcox makes a proposal of marriage that Margaret, after some reflection, accepts. A horrified Helen tries to dissuade her sister, but Margaret remains determined to marry Mr. Wilcox, even though she recognizes his emotional and spiritual limitations. He is embarrassed by passionate feelings and overly concerned with appearances.

While visiting Mr. Wilcox’s married son, Charles, and his wife Dolly in the country, Margaret gets her first sight of Howards End, deserted by a tenant who has now gone abroad. While exploring the neglected house, Margaret briefly encounters Miss Avery, the old housekeeper, who informs her that she has the late Ruth Wilcox’s “way of walking” (Howards End, p. 211). Although startled by this meeting, Margaret soon dismisses it from her mind as preparations for Evie Wilcox’s wedding—to be held at another family property, Oniton Grange near Salisbury—begin.

On the day of the wedding, however, an outraged Helen, with Leonard and Jacky Bast in tow, barges in on the reception. Helen, who kept in touch with Leonard through correspondence, angrily reveals to Margaret that Leonard has lost everything, including his new position at Dempster’s bank, through the bad business advice of the Schlegels and Mr. Wilcox. Leonard had left his former place of employment based on advice from Wilcox that the company would founder, but it did not, and Dempster’s bank had fired him. Helen demands that Mr. Wilcox make financial restitution to Leonard. Annoyed by her sister’s outburst, Margaret nonetheless agrees to intercede for the young man, but after she persuades Mr. Wilcox to meet the Basts, a tipsy Jacky reveals that she was Mr. Wilcox’s mistress ten years before. Mortified, Mr. Wilcox offers to release Margaret from their engagement, but she forgives him, reasoning that it was his late wife, not herself, who had suffered from his indiscretion. Margaret decides that, under the circumstances, Mr. Wilcox should not be expected to help the Basts and writes a note to Helen, who is staying with Leonard and Jacky at a local hotel, informing her of this decision. Helen and Leonard are sitting together in the hotel coffee room when the bad news arrives that evening.

The next morning, Margaret learns to her dismay that Helen and the Basts have left the hotel separately, leaving no clue as to their whereabouts. Meanwhile, a distraught Helen visits her brother Tibby, now at Oxford, informs him of what happened at Oniton Grange, and asks him to send a large sum of money—made over from her personal fortune—to the Basts, as she is about to go abroad. Tibby obeys, but the money is quickly returned, and on following up the situation at Helen’s request, Tibby learns that the Basts have been evicted from their home and disappeared.

Soon after Evie’s wedding, Margaret and Mr. Wilcox marry quietly and have a honeymoon in Innsbruck, Austria. Margaret hopes for a meeting with her sister, but Helen remains elusive. Returning to England, the newlyweds search for a permanent country home since Mr. Wilcox has decided to let Oniton Grange. Not long after their return, Margaret learns from her husband’s daughter-in-law Dolly Wilcox that the Schlegels’ furniture, which has been stored at the deserted Howards End since the demolishment of the Schlegels’ home, has been mistakenly unpacked and set up in the house. Traveling down to Hertfordshire to straighten out the situation, Margaret again encounters the housekeeper Miss Avery, who tells her more about the house and the Howards, while calmly refusing to believe Margaret’s claim that she will not be living at Howards End. After her visit, Margaret resolves to have all the furniture repacked and sent to a warehouse, but her plans are upset when her Aunt Juley falls seriously ill.

After a long period of nursing, Aunt Juley recovers but Margaret and Tibby are disturbed by Helen’s continued absence from England, which has now lasted eight months. Margaret’s anxiety increases when Helen does return to England but still avoids a direct meeting. In desperation, Margaret colludes with Mr. Wilcox to force a meeting by luring Helen down to Howards End to pick up some of her books. When Margaret surprises Helen at the house, she sees that her sister is pregnant.

Shocked by Helen’s situation, Mr. Wilcox and his son, Charles, demand to know the identity of the baby’s father, but Margaret shields her sister from their prying. Alone, Helen confesses to Margaret that her child is the result of a night spent with Leonard Bast. She also tells Margaret that she is going abroad for the birth but asks if she can spend one night at Howards End with her sister. Margaret passes along Helen’s request to Mr. Wilcox, who refuses to allow a “fallen woman” to stay in his late wife’s house. Furious, Margaret berates her husband for his hypocrisy and his inability to see the similarity between his transgression and Helen’s. She then leaves him, returning to Helen at Howards End.

The following day, two more people converge on Howards End: Leonard Bast, who, guilt-ridden over his night with Helen, wishes to confess his sin to Margaret and Charles Wilcox, who is determined to evict the sisters from the house. Owing to an inadvertent slip on the part of Tibby, whom Charles visited the previous day, the younger Wilcox has deduced the identity of Helen’s lover. Seeing Leonard at Howards End, Charles seizes an old German sword belonging to the Schlegels and beats Leonard with the flat of it. Reeling from the blows, Leonard pulls the bookcase down on top of himself. Once extricated, he is discovered to be dead. Although doctors declare that Leonard’s death was due to heart disease, Charles is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. Broken by his son’s disgrace, Mr. Wilcox turns to his estranged wife for comfort. Despite having planned to leave England with Helen, Margaret moves her brokenhearted husband and sister into Howards End.

Fourteen months later, Margaret, Mr. Wilcox, Helen and her baby are still living at Howards End and have managed to become a family. Mr. Wilcox assembles his children at the house to inform them of the terms of his new will: all his money will be divided among his offspring, but Howards End will go to Margaret, and after her death, to her nephew, Helen’s son. The Wilcox children accept the terms and take their leave. The novel ends with Margaret’s chance discovery that Ruth Wilcox had always intended her to have Howards End and with the triumphant cutting of hay in the Hertfordshire meadow.

Home, sweet home

Howards End itself is as much a character in Forster’s novel as the Wilcoxes and Schlegels. Indeed, much of the story’s action focuses on the process of finding a suitable home—throughout the novel, houses are purchased, furnished, abandoned, demolished, and, in the case of Howards End, rediscovered and brought to life again.

The unique nature of Howards End—originally a Hertfordshire farmhouse—is established in Helen’s first letter to Margaret, in which she describes the house as “old, and little, and altogether delightful—red brick” and not at all the kind of dwelling they would expect the Wilcoxes to own (Howards End, p. 3). Further details of


Forster’s famous epigraph—the literary motto—that serves as a prelude to Howards End has elicited considerable critical commentary. Literary scholar Claude J. Summers argues that “the idea of connection fuels the novel’s attempts to fuse into wholeness individuals divided within themselves and a society equally fragmented and to reconcile the various dualities of existence: the inner life and the outer life, the past and the present, the body and the soul, the masculine and the feminine, the city and the country, the visible and the invisible, the prose and the passion, life and death” (Summers, pp. 106-107). Similarly, Alistair M. Duckworth contends that the epigraph “expresses a wish—for the emergence of a just, harmonious, and whole society—and îl acknowledges that the Edwardian world was disconnected at the social, political, economic, cultural, and sexual levels” (Duckworth, p. 8). The character in the novel who most embodies this philosophy and hope for connection is Margaret Schlegel, whose unexpected love for Henry Wilcox leads her to attempt to bridge the chasm between their disparate worlds and values: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” (Howards End, p. 195). Firmly believing that personal relations are the basis of meaningful human existence, Margaret is stunned and appalled to learn that her new husband cannot connect, that he refuses to see any parallel between his infidelity to the first Mrs. Wilcox and Helen’s pregnancy by a married lover. Henry’s inability to “connect” causes Margaret to leave him, and only a greater tragedy—the sudden death of Leonard Bast and Charles Wilcox’s imprisonment as his killer—can reunite them.

the house’s history—its wide meadow and great wych-elm tree—are provided by Ruth Wilcox who inherited Howards End after the deaths of all the male heirs. As her friendship with Ruth develops, Margaret Schlegel discovers “that Mrs. Wilcox, though a loving wife and mother, had only one passion in life—her house—and that the moment was solemn when she invited a friend to share this passion with her” (Howards End, p. 89).

Indeed, it is Mrs. Wilcox’s devotion to Howards End that allows her to sympathize so completely with the Schlegels when she hears that their London house is to be torn down to make room for a block of flats: “To be parted from your house, your father’s house—it oughtn’t to be allowed. It is worse than dying…. Oh, poor girls! Can what they call civilization be right, if people mayn’t die in the room where they were born?” (Howards End, p. 86). Love for Howards End also prompts the dying Wilcox matriarch to leave the house to Margaret rather than to her own uncomprehending family: “To them Howards End was a house; they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir” (Howards End, p. 103). Unaware of her late friend’s bequest for most of the novel, Margaret is nonetheless recognized as Mrs. Wilcox’s “spiritual heir” by old Miss Avery, former housekeeper of Howards End, who unpacks the Schlegels’ old furniture in full expectation of their future residence there: “You think you won’t come back to live here, Mrs. Wilcox, but you will” (Howards End, p. 284).

Ruth Wilcox’s passion for her country home—a passion that her successor, Margaret, comes to share—hearkens back to the Victorian period, in which a home was considered a haven and a refuge from the cares and pressures of the outside world. The passion for the English countryside, however, has taken on a new intensity; it acquired a heightened keenness during the Edwardian Age. The well-to-do often tried to maintain a place in the country as well as in the town; the construction of the railroads throughout the nineteenth century had made it possible for city-dwellers to visit their country homes for the weekend and be back in town by Monday. Certainly the stay was reward enough for the trouble of the journey there: “In terms of the picturesque the countryside was at its best during the period, and townees sought succour and inspiration amidst flora and fauna” (Pearsall, p. 118).

For farmers, yeomen, and poor rural laborers, country life was rather less idyllic. Agriculture had been steadily losing ground as an industry since the 1880s and 1890s; the monetary value of land had fallen dramatically. A 700-acre Wiltshire farm, worth 27,000 pounds in 1812, sold for only 7,000 pounds in 1892 (Pearsall, p. 121). After 1871, farms also suffered from a diminished supply of laborers, many of whom, as noted, flocked to industrial cities to work in mills and factories. Finally, the countryside itself was under attack, as the growing suburbs of large towns encroached upon hill and meadowland. At the end of Forster’s novel, Helen points out “a red rust” in the distance and wistfully observes “London’s creeping” towards Howards End, a circumstance that even the optimistic Margaret cannot deny (Howards End, p. 355). Significantly, the knowledge of what is coming only makes the Schlegels—like their real-life contemporaries—value what they have even more: “The Edwardian period was one in which many people looked on the English countryside with new eyes; some knew it would never be so beautiful again” (Cecil, p. 131).

Sources and literary context

As early as 1908 Forster had begun thinking about the novel that would eventually become Howards End. He had already considered the idea of a plot involving two cultured, idealistic sisters, one of whom would wed a businessman and face a troubled marriage. Forster numbered among his acquaintances several intellectual women who provided partial inspiration for these characters, including the three sisters of Cambridge instructor Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and the Stephen sisters, Vanessa and Virginia (who later became the novelist Virginia Woolf; see Mrs. Dalloway , also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Forster also drew on his own experiences in Germany as a tutor to Countess Von Arnheim’s children in 1905, who provided the German origins of the Schlegels. Arguably, the most autobiographical of Forster’s sources for the novel was the country house, Rooksnest, in Hertfordshire, where Forster lived for much of his boyhood and which served as the model for Howards End.

Forster’s novel is often considered an example of the English realistic tradition in its attempt to convey the details of Edwardian life as the author experienced them. Forster himself was an admirer of such realistic novelists as George Eliot and William Makepeace Thackeray (see Middle-march and Vanity Fair in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature of Its Times). Yet Howards End may also be read as a comic satire on the values and foibles of the middle class, which is represented in all its diverse aspects by the materialistic Wilcoxes, the idealistic Schlegels, and the struggling Leonard Bast. Looking at the novel from yet another vantage point, literary scholar Frederick P. McDowell calls Howards End “the quintessential Bloomsbury novel”; the reference here is to a group of Edwardian writers and thinkers, many of whom were Forster’s acquaintances. They used to meet for intellectual discussions at 46 Gordon Street in the neighborhood of Bloomsbury, laying “stress upon the overriding importance of personal relationships” and placing “high valuation” on art and culture (McDowell, p. 65). Moreover, Forster’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel, could be considered the “quintessential Bloomsbury intellectual,” owing to her habit of “skeptically and rationally testing social and philosophical values and balancing the polarities of the objectively real and the visionary” (McDowell, p. 65).


Howards End was favorably received from the outset of its publication. Most critics expressed admiration for Forster’s attention to detail and ability to convey believable emotional states. A. N. Monkhouse, writing for the Manchester Guardian called Howards End “a novel of high quality written with what appears to be a feminine brilliance of perception…. It is always a humane presentment of real men and women even when their doings surprise us into some kind of protest” (Monkhouse in Gardner, pp. 123-124). A reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement similarly declared, “Mr. E. M. Forster … has written a book in which his highly original talent has found full and ripe expression,” adding, “where quick-fingered lightness and deftness are demanded, there Mr. Forster never fails; and he has caught in this book a sensitive reflection of life on which he is very heartily to be congratulated” (Gardner, pp. 125-126).

Critics were also taken with Forster’s characters. A reviewer for The Standard singled out the Schlegel sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox, and Leonard Bast as “wonderfully rendered” and contended that “[w]ith this book [Forster] seems to us to have arrived, and if he never writes another line, his niche should be secure” (Gardner, p. 129). There were, however, some quibbles regarding Forster’s plot, especially the sexual encounter between Helen and Leonard, which a reviewer for The Daily Telegraph complained “strikes a false note” because “[wie do not feel that it is inevitable, but that it is the author’s will, and that he is doing violence to his characters in bringing it about” (Gardner, p. 131). Similarly, a reviewer for the Daily Graphic observed that “the ending is brought about, or at any rate is accompanied, by incidents which, in any other juxtaposition, we should call sensational; and which in their sober surroundings have a disturbing crudity” (Gardner, p. 146).

Nonetheless, the general consensus on Howards End echoed the review of the critic for The Daily Mail, who declared that “the faults of this book are as nothing compared to its merits. The way in which the characters … are made to live before us is of the essence of all great fiction… . Howards End is packed full of good things. It stands out head and shoulders above the great mass of fiction now claiming a hearing. The autumn season has brought us some good novels, but this is, so far, the best of them” (Gardner, pp. 144-145).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Cannadine, David. The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Cecil, Robert. Life in Edwardian England. London: B. T. Batsford, 1969.

Crow, Duncan. The Edwardian Woman. New York: St. Martin’s, 1978.

Duckworth, Alistair M. Howards End: E. M. Forster’s House of Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1989.

Forster, E. M. Howards End. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Gardner, Philip, ed. E. M. Forster: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. E. M. Forster. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Pearsall, Ronald. Edwardian Life and Leisure. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1973.

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox-Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England. New York: Touchstone, 1993.

Priestley, J. B. The Edwardians. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Summers, Claude J. E. M. Forster. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983.

Widdowson, Peter. E. M. Forster’s Howards End: Fiction as History. London: Sussex University Press, 1977.

Howards End

views updated May 23 2018


UK, 1992

Director: James Ivory

Production: Merchant Ivory Productions; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 142 minutes. Filmed in London, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, 1991.

Producer: Ismail Merchant; screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by E. M. Forster; photography: Tony-Pierce Roberts; editor: Andrew Marcus; assistant directors: Chris Newman, Simon Moseley, Carol Oprey; production designer: Luciana Arrighi; art director: John Ralph; music: Richard Robbins; sound editors: Campbell Askew, Sarah Morton; sound recordists: Mike Shoring, Keith Grant; costume design: Jenny Beaven, John Bight.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Henry Wilcox); Emma Thompson (Margaret Schlegel); Vanessa Redgrave (Ruth Wilcox); Helen-Bonham Carter (Helen Schlegel); James Wilby (Charles Wilcox); Samuel West (Leonard Bast); Prunella Scales (Aunt Juley); Joseph Bennett (Paul Wilcox); Adrian Ross Magenty (Tibby Schlegel); Jo Kendall (Annie); Jemma Redgrave (Evie Wilcoz).

Awards: Oscars for Best Actress (Thompson), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction, 1992.



Long, Robert Emmet, Films of Merchant Ivory, New York, 1991.

Pym, John, and James Ivory, Merchant Ivory's English Landscape: Rooms, Views, and Anglosaxon Attitudes, New York, 1995.


Bates, P., Cineaste (New York), 1992.

Variety (New York), 24 February 1992.

Anderson, P., Films in Review (New York), March-April 1992.

Francke, L., Sight and Sound (London), May 1992.

Guerin, M., "Le collectioneur," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1992.

Roth-Bettoni, D., Revue du Cinéma (Paris), June 1992.

Sineux, M., Positif (Paris), June 1992.

McFarlane, B., "Literature-Film Connections," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), August 1992.

Benjamin, D., Séquences (Montreal), September 1992.

Grugeau, G., 24 Images (Montreal), September 1992.

Frook, J.E., "Sony Unit's 'Howard' Slow Rollout Pays Off," in Variety (New York), 11 January 1993.

Novelli, I., "Casa Howard," in Film (Rome), no. 1, January-February 1993.

Jacobs, J., "Indies Play the Smiling Game as Academy Honors Outsiders," in Film Journal (New York), vol. 96, March 1993.

Jaroš, Jan, in Film a Doba (Prague), vol. 39, no. 2, Summer 1993.

Hipsky, M., "Anglophil(m)ia: Why Does America Watch Merchant-Ivory Movies?" in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 22, no. 3, 1994.

* * *

Brand name producer-director teams are a rarity in the movies. Merchant-Ivory is one of the few producer-director teams. It is also the most successful.

Audiences know exactly what to expect of a Merchant-Ivory production: A literate script adapted from an esteemed (and seemingly unfilmable) literary source, sumptuous period decor and costumes, and impeccable acting of the classically trained rather than Method school—a genteel journey into the well-mannered past with not a car chase or explosion in sight nor a foul word to be heard. In other words, a fastidious cinematic equivalent of an episode of public television's long-running series "Masterpiece Theatre"—a comparison Merchant-Ivory's detractors usually point to as the team's major weakness.

Merchant-Ivory's approach certainly flies in the face of conventional wisdom as to what constitutes marketability these days. But their films have been so successful in luring a lucrative new market, the ever-growing over-50 crowd, into theatres that Hollywood could no longer ignore them. As a result, Merchant-Ivory have now been folded into the gargantuan Disney organization and been given the financial backing to up their output, with guaranteed distribution for their elegant period pieces extending far beyond the art house theatres that were previously the team's domain. In addition, other producers have begun adopting the team's formula, turning out one Merchant-Ivory-type film after another like Enchanted April, The Age of Innocence, Shadowlands, Tom and Viv, and Sense and Sensibility, to name but a few.

Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory (who had initially sought entrance into the movies as a set designer) have been making films since 1963. Their trademark combination of literariness, elegance, and well-bred sophistication did not manifest itself until 1979 with their adaptation of Henry James's novel The Europeans. But their fortunes turned most dramatically with the 1992 Howards End, the team's most popular film up to that time and third adaptation of an E. M. Forster novel following such earlier forays into Forster territory as A Room With a View, a modest success and multiple Academy Award winner that proved to be a harbinger of things to come, and Maurice, a relative flop. Like A Room With a View, Howards End scored big come Academy Award night in some of the "lesser" categories as Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. But it also captured the Best Actress prize for star Emma Thompson, adding millions of dollars to the picture's already substantial box office take.

A study of class distinction in Edwardian England, Howards End focuses on three families whose lives intersect with tragic and ironic results. Thompson and Bonham Carter play Margaret and Helen, sisters of obvious breeding but little means, who befriend working class bank clerk Leonard (West) in an effort to better his situation. They encourage him to get another job when they're tipped that his present employer may go under. They get the tip from wealthy businessman Henry Wilcox (Hopkins) whose wife, Ruth (Redgrave), has befriended Margaret for much the same purpose. Ruth learns that the sisters are faced with losing their home. When Ruth dies, she makes a last-minute bequest, leaving Howards End, her ancestral cottage in the country, to the soon-to-be-displaced Margaret. But Henry and his rotter son, Charles (James Wilby), keep the bequest a secret in order to keep the cottage in the family, even though it goes unused.

After Ruth's death, widower Henry takes up with the vibrant Margaret and eventually marries her. Meanwhile, Helen is made pregnant by Leonard—whose low-class wife had been seduced as a young girl, then tossed aside, by Henry himself. When Margaret learns of her manipulative husband's past indiscretion, she forgives him and requests that Helen be allowed to take up residence at Howards End to have her illegitimate baby. But Henry refuses, hypocritically spurning Helen for her indiscretion, even though it mirrors his own.

The perpetually down-on-his-luck Leonard, unaware that Helen is pregnant, shows up for another hand-out from his benefactors and is accidentally killed by Charles after being subjected to a thrashing. The ensuing scandal and exposed wounds of family dysfunction and class hostility boil to a head and Margaret threatens to leave Henry, a basically decent, albeit misguided man. Like the sisters and even the dead Leonard, he has always sought to do what's right, but achieved mostly wrong instead due to class difference. To hold onto Margaret, he agrees to her single demand that Howards End be turned over to her lock, stock, and barrel. Ironically, the tragic collision of classes has resulted in the property winding up in her hands just as the dying Ruth had long ago wished. And Helen, who had earlier been rejected as a suitable wife by another of Henry's sons, is free to live there and raise the offspring of her lower-class union.

The machinations of Forster's plot may strike some as a bit too reliant on coincidence. But Merchant-Ivory and their superlative crew and cast, lead by the engaging Thompson, bring the period story and characters so vividly to life that the coincidences seem not just credible, but inevitable.

Long, slow but never boring, Howards End trenchantly observes the foibles of its characters while creating a remarkable degree of empathy for them and concern for their respective fates. It grips the eye and the emotions like a good read—the good read, in fact, from which it sprang.

—John McCarty

Howard, John

views updated Jun 08 2018

Howard, John (1726–90). Prison reformer. Howard was born in London and owned a small property at Cardington (Beds.), where he spent the last 30 years of his life. He was an independent in religion, worshipping at the chapel Bunyan had served, a teetotaller, vegetarian, and a man of austere habits. In 1773 he was appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire and discovered that prisoners who had been acquitted were unable to leave gaol unless they could pay the gaoler's fee. His colleagues on the bench rejected his suggestion that the gaoler should be paid a salary, leading Howard to embark upon an extraordinary life of prison visits throughout the British Isles and ultimately most of Europe. His State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777) exposed the squalor and brutality of many gaols. He died of typhus while on a visit to Russia and was buried there, though a statue was erected to him in St Paul's. Almost single-handedly, Howard placed the question of prison reform on the agenda.

J. A. Cannon