Howards End  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Howards End is a novel by E. M. Forster, first published in 1910, about social conventions, codes of conduct and relationships in turn-of-the-century England. Howards End is considered by some to be Forster's masterpiece. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Howards End 38th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Plot summary

The story revolves around three families in England at the beginning of the 20th century: the Wilcoxes, rich capitalists with a fortune made in the colonies; the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Helen, and Tibby), whose cultural pursuits have much in common with the Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, an impoverished young couple from a lower-class background. The idealistic, intelligent Schlegel sisters seek to help the struggling Basts and to rid the Wilcoxes of some of their deep-seated social and economic prejudices.

The Schlegels had briefly met and befriended the Wilcoxes, when both families were touring Germany. Helen, the younger Schlegel daughter, then visits the Wilcoxes at their country house, Howards End. There, she is romantically attracted to the younger Wilcox son, Paul; they become engaged in haste but soon regret their decision. The engagement is broken off by mutual consent, despite a somewhat awkward intervention by Helen's Aunt Juley.

Later that year, the Wilcoxes move to London, taking an apartment close to the Schlegels' home. Margaret Schlegel befriends the Wilcox matriarch, Ruth. Howards End is Ruth's most prized possession; she feels a strong connection to its values and history. Her husband and children do not share her feelings for the old house. Perceiving that Margaret is a kindred spirit, Ruth invites her to visit Howards End but circumstances prevent the visit from taking place. Margaret is unaware that Ruth is gravely ill and that Ruth regards her as an ideal owner of Howards End after she dies. On her deathbed, Ruth writes a note bequeathing Howards End to Margaret; when the widowed Henry Wilcox reads this note, it causes him great consternation. Henry and his children burn the note without telling Margaret about her inheritance.

A few years later, Henry Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel renew their acquaintance. Their friendship blossoms into romance and Henry proposes to Margaret who accepts. It is apparent that their personalities could not be more different. The courageous, idealistic, compassionate, high-minded and romantically inclined Margaret tries to get the rigid, unsentimental, staunchly rational Henry to open up more, to little effect. Henry's children do not look upon her engagement to their father with a friendly eye. Evie, the daughter, soon to be married, is largely concerned with her own affairs; Paul, the younger son, lives and works in Nigeria. The main opposition comes from the elder son, Charles and his wife Dolly, who are civil enough to conceal their hostility to Margaret, yet really see her as an intruder, posing a threat to their own ambitions. Most of all, they fear any claim she could one day have to Howards End.

The sisters encourage Leonard Bast, an acquaintance, to quit his job as a clerk and seek employment elsewhere, having learned from Henry that the insurance company Leonard works for is likely to go bankrupt. A few weeks later, Henry reverses his opinion but it's too late. Leonard has already resigned his modest yet safe position, thereby losing whatever precarious hold he had on financial security and his job-seeking efforts come to naught.

An additional complication is that Leonard is living with but not married to Jacky, a troubled, vulnerable "fallen" woman for whom he feels responsible. Helen continues to try to help him, ostensibly out of guilt for having interfered with his life in the first place but also perhaps because she is secretly attracted to him. Soon it all goes terribly wrong; Helen encounters the starving Basts and appalled by the state they are in, brings them to Evie Wilcox's wedding celebration, whereupon Henry recognises Jacky as his former mistress. He flees from the scene, breaking off his engagement to Margaret. His first thought is that the Schlegels and Basts have concocted a dark plot to entrap and expose him but he later calms down and tells Margaret the truth. Ten years previously, when he was on business in Cyprus, despite being married, he seduced Jacky and then carelessly abandoned her, leaving her on foreign soil with no money and no way to return home. Margaret, dreadfully disturbed by this, confronts Henry about his ill-treatment of Jacky. Henry is embarrassed and ashamed, but unrepentant. Such are the ways of the world, to his mind. Margaret, for various reasons, wishes to save the relationship, forgives him. Henry and Margaret realise that they must put the past behind them to make peace with each other and plan their future.

The Schlegel sisters drift apart, partly because of Margaret's impending marriage into the Wilcox family, partly because of Helen's profound disapproval of Henry's treatment of the Basts. Much distressed by what she has heard from Leonard about the circumstances of Henry's acquaintance with Jacky in Cyprus, she is overwhelmed by love and pity for him; she sees Leonard as a strikingly altruistic and romantic figure, whose struggle throughout life bears the mark of heroism. Helen and Leonard are thrown together in an atmosphere of great anguish and succumb to their feelings of mutual passion. Finding herself pregnant, Helen leaves England, travelling to Germany to hide her condition but later returns to England upon receiving news that Aunt Juley is ill. She refuses to meet her sister face-to-face but is tricked by Margaret, who, following Henry's suggestion, had travelled to Howards End, where Helen's belongings are kept. Having correctly guessed that Helen would wish to retrieve them, she surprises her sister by appearing on the scene unannounced. Henry and Margaret had planned an intervention with a doctor, presuming Helen's evasive behaviour was a sign of emotional instability or even mental illness. As soon as they encounter Helen at Howards End, they see the truth.

Margaret decides it is her duty to stand by her sister and help her. She tries in vain to convince Henry that if she can forgive his transgression, he should forgive Helen hers. Henry, indignant, remains unconvinced. Leonard arrives at Howards End, still tormented by the affair and wishing to speak to Margaret. He is not aware of Helen's presence, having lost contact with her ever since refusing her offer to assist him financially. Charles Wilcox then bursts upon the scene and in an effort to ingratiate himself with his father, attacks Leonard for purportedly "insulting" Helen. He strikes Leonard with the flat edge of a heavy old German sword which had belonged to Margaret's father. Leonard grabs onto a nearby bookcase, which collapses in a heap on top of him. Tragically, his weak heart, which has been infected by heart disease, fails and he dies on the spot. Margaret assumes responsibility for this turn of events and sides with Helen and the dead Leonard, informing Henry of her intention to leave him.

Charles Wilcox is found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. The scandal and its repercussions have a profound effect on Henry, causing him to take a good look at his life and examine his conscience. He learns the value of empathy and begins to connect with others. Writing a new will, he bequeaths Howards End to Margaret, as his deceased first wife Ruth had wished. He further stipulates that, after Margaret's death, the property will go to her nephew, the son of Helen and Leonard. Helen is warmly reconciled with Margaret and Henry. Fully supported by them, she decides to bring up her son at Howards End. The scene of the tragedy is revealed as a place of poetic justice and redemption. Margaret has resolved the conflict by making a complex, thoughtful, remarkably noble moral choice to stand by her sister, while at the same time reversing her decision to leave her husband. Indeed, by staying married to Henry, lovingly supporting him through his hour of need, she acts as a uniting force, bringing all the elements peacefully together. The future is ostensibly happy, as the open-minded, forward-looking idealism of the Schlegels is balanced and integrated with the healthy drive and essential pragmatism of the Wilcoxes, each side learning tremendous lessons from the other through a vital process of discord brought into harmony. Leonard Bast's son with Helen is set to inherit Howards End from the Wilcox family, making some amends for the tragedy.

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