Howard’s End (1910) is a novel by E.M. Forster. It deals with an English country house called Howard’s End, and its influence on the lives of the idealistic and intellectual Schlegel sisters, the wealthy and materialistic Wilcox family, and the poor bank clerk Leonard Bast.
Margaret and Helen Schelgel are sisters who are wealthy and are unmarried. Their parents are dead. They live with their adolescent brother Tibby at Wickham Place, a comfortable London house on a quiet street. The two young women (Margaret is 29 when the novel opens, Helen is 21) devote most of their energy to conversation and culture. They had previously met the Wilcox family during a trip to Germany.
Henry Wilcox, a successful London businessman, lives with his wife Ruth and their three grown children, Charles, Paul, and Evie, at Howard’s End, a country house in Hertfordshire, which had been Ruth’s birthplace and her family home.
The Schlegels are half-German (their father emigrated from Germany). But the Wilcoxes are thoroughly English. The Schlegels are more independent and cosmopolitan in outlook, while the Wilcoxes are more narrow-minded and conservative. The Schelgels attend concerts and informal dinner-parties, but the Wilcoxes show little interest in casual conservation and culture.
Superficially, Margaret and Helen Schlegel are similar, both being liberal, cultivated, and intelligent; yet Helen, the younger and prettier of the two, is more impressionable and impulsive. When Helen, at the beginning of the novel, visits the Wilcox family at Howard’s End, she precipitously falls in love with Paul, the younger son. But their engagement is broken off the next day, when she is overwhelmed to discover that Paul lacks the courage to announce the engagement to his family. Though Helen had at first fallen in love with the entire Wilcox family, she then becomes disillusioned with them, and finds them to represent “panic and emptyness,” and to lack sensitivity and feeling.
Helen is a romantic idealist; she believes that truth and justice are absolute, and finds it difficult to compromise with the world as it is. Helen lacks Margaret’s self-control.
When the Wilcox family later moves into a flat in Wickham Mansions opposite the Schlegel’s home at Wickham Place, Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox meet and become friends. Helen leaves for Germany, while Paul leaves for Nigeria. Charles Wilcox has married a young woman named Dolly Fussell.
Ruth’s health is declining, and as she is dying she pencils a note to her husband that she wishes Margaret Schlegel to have Howard’s End. Henry shows the note to his son Charles and to his daughter Evie after Ruth’s death, but the Wilcox family decides to ignore Ruth’s wish. They destroy the note, and do not tell Margaret of the note’s existence.
Two years later, the Schlegel sisters meet a poor young clerk named Leonard Bast, after Helen has mistakenly taken his umbrella away from a concert at Queen’s Hall. Leonard is a young clerk who lives in poverty with his wife Jacky in a depressing London flat. He tries to relieve the tedium of existence by going to concerts and by reading Ruskin and Stevenson.
The Schlegel sisters feel sympathy toward Leonard, and become interested in helping him. When they happen to meet Henry Wilcox one evening as they are walking along Chelsea Embankment, they mention Leonard, and the fact that Leonard works as a clerk at the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company. Mr.Wilcox makes a casual remark advising that the young man find another job immediately because Porphyrion is in danger of bankruptcy. The Schlegel sisters convey this advice to Leonard, who subsequently resigns from his job and takes another position at a bank even though it offers a lower salary.
Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox become acquainted with each other, and Henry is attracted to Margaret, and sees her resemblance to Ruth’s integrity, placidity, and understanding. Margaret, who feels herself on the verge of being a spinster, accepts Henry’s proposal of marriage, despite the fact that Henry is much older than she is.
Leonard Bast loses his job when the bank he is working for reduces its staff, and Leonard has to live in utter poverty. The Porphyrion, in fact, continues as a successful firm, in sound financial condition, and Helen feels responsible that Leonard lost his job. Helen blames Henry for his casual and mistaken advice, although the circumstances and misfortune of the young clerk meant nothing to Henry. Henry Wilcox has no sympathy for the poor, and dismisses Leonard’s misfortunre as “part of the battle of life.” Henry refuses to be sentimental, although the Schlegel sisters are sentimental about helping the poor.
Helen’s attempt to solve Leonard’s problem is consistent with her extremism. She brings Leonard and his slovenly wife Jacky uninvited to Evie’s wedding party, and tries to trap Henry into giving Leonard a job. But the project misfires when Jacky recognizes Henry as a former lover, and reminds him of the fact. Jacky had been Henry’s mistress when he had been married to Ruth. Margaret discovers that Henry had an adulterous and shameful relationship with Jacky in the past, but she forgives him. However, Henry refuses to do anything for Leonard, because this would confirm Henry ‘s former relationship with Jacky.
That night, Helen stays with Leonard at the local inn. Helen leaves the next morning.
Margaret and Henry are married. Helen leaves for eight months in Gernmany, but her long absence worries Margaret, and after Helen has returned to England, Margaret manages to meet Helen at Howard’s End.
Margaret discovers that Helen is pregnant with Leonard Bast’s child. There is a strong bond of affection between the sisters, and Helen asks Margaret to stay the night with her at Howard’s End before Helen returns to Germany. Leonard Bast appears at the house in a state of remorse, but Charles Wilcox has been trying to find out who had seduced Helen so that the lover can be brought to account. When Charles sees Leonard, he begins to attack him, and Leonard collapses under a falling shelf of books and is accidentally killed by a heart attack.
Margaret decides to leave Henry, and to travel with Helen to Germany following Leonard’s death, but Charles Wilcox is charged with manslaughter and sentenced to prison, and Henry is a broken man. Margaret decides to stay, and uses the influence of Howard’s End to shelter both Helen and Henry, and she reconciles them.
Henry makes it known that after his death his children will inherit his money but Margaret will inherit Howard’s End, and that Margaret in turn intends to leave Howard’s End after her death to Helen’s child. Margaret discovers through a remark of Dolly’s that Ruth Wilcox had wanted Margaret to have Howard’s End. Margaret forgives Henry for not having told her of Ruth’s wish.
Themes of the novel include the conflict between materialism and idealism, practicality and imagination, reason and passion, city life and country life. Another theme of the novel is the repressive nature of the class structure of English society. Another theme is the emptiness and hypocrisy of upper-class society.
A major theme of the novel is the contrast or conflict between the Schlegel family and the Wilcox family. The Schlegels are idealistic and intellectual, while the Wilcoxes are more materialistic and motivated by the desire to maintain their wealth and property. The Schlegels are liberal and cosmopolitan in outlook, while the Wilcoxes are more conservative and interested in maintaining their position in society. The Schlegels are sentimental about helping the poor, while Henry Wilcox refuses to be sentimental, saying that there will always be rich and poor. The Schlegels try to help Leonard Bast, but the misfortunes of the poor clerk mean nothing to Henry Wilcox. Henry Wilcox is practical and businesslike, while the Schlegel sisters are more motivated by impulse or intuition. Henry lacks the capacity for introspection, but Margaret is intellectual. Henry has been unfaithful to his wife Ruth, but Margaret is faithful to her sense of personal responsibility. Forster shows sympathy for both the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, while also describing their failures with a tone of gentle irony. Forster shows that the Schlegels, despite their idealism, can be impractical, impulsive, and sentimental, and that the Wilcoxes, despite their narow-mindedness and materialism, are practical, realistic, and represent the foundation of British society. The setting of the struggle between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes is Howard’s End, which represents England.