i am currently reading e.m. forster’s howards end. earlier today, a friend and i were talking about it and she asked, “so are you actually enjoying this book?” and the honest answer is, yes, yes i am. it seemed a bit dull at first, but once we got to margaret’s attempt at reconnecting with mrs.wilcox, i was interested. but let’s start at the beginning.
by the way, this norton critical edition has the complete text as well as 230 pages of critical essays, textual variants from different editions, and other information regarding howards end. if you’re going to study this text, this might be a useful edition to invest in. otherwise, go with a cheaper edition (thinking about it, it should be out of copyright and available as a free e-book.)
(YES! the novel is online at the wonderful project gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2891 )
recurring / dominant themes in the text include comparisons between “teuton”(german) and british characteristics, contemporary ideas on how men and women should or should not behave or speak, inner and outer life, class issues (with the main characters all independently wealthy), manners and politeness, idealism vs pragmatism, and some others.
the book starts out with letters between the young english-and-german woman margaret schlegel and her younger sister helen. independently wealthy but orphaned and in charge of raising their little brother tibby, they receive help from their aunt. helen is visiting acquaintances (the wilcox family) at their country house, howards end. she describes the house as having nine windows, a vine growing on on it, and a wych elm tree just outside. later, we learn from mrs. wilcox that there are pigs’ teeth stuck in the bark of the tree, half overgrown because they have been there for so long, and that the villagers – superstitiously enough – used to chew on pieces of the bark to cure a toothache.
in any case, in her first two letters helen describes the place, which to her is abundant in beauty, and the charming company the wilcoxes are. her next letter comes as a surprise – it is just a short note, without explanation: “Paul and I are in love – the younger son who only came here Wednesday.” margaret and her aunt decide something needs to be done to assure the younger sister does not end up heartbroken or in an unacceptable situation. the aunt takes a train to howards end, and as margaret returns from dropping her off at the train station, she finds this telegram: “All over. Wish I had never written. Tell no one. – Helen.” this being 1910 (or round about then), the aunt cannot be reached before she arrives at howards end, and her visit results in a scene, with her not only mistaking the older brother for the younger, but also misinformed about the current situation.
some time later, helen has basically forgotten about paul wilcox, the wilcox family moves into the house across the street from margaret and helen (the misses schlegel) and their aunt. there is some concern that it might become very awkward having to deal with them / see them. helen decides to travel to the continent with her german cousin (?) and when mrs wilcox pays a visit and leaves her card, margaret deliberates for a long time before writing an outspoken letter about why in view of the past they should probably not socialize. again, a misunderstanding, as mrs wilcox only wanted to let them know that paul (the “offending party”) has left england. margaret, deeply embarrassed, calls on mrs wilcox, who is not doing well that day but insists she stay a while. the two women are starting some sort of very careful approach at friendship when, suddenly, there’s a chapter break, and we’re at mrs wilcoxes funeral. while i had already been reminded of woolf’s to the lighthouse and in my mind was drawing parallels between mrs wilcox and mrs ramsay, by this point the connection was really strong for me. i must say i was also disappointed because i wanted to see these two interesting characters interact some more, and for this peculiar relationship to evolve further.
anyway. from hereon, margaret is the heroine of the book. the plot lines all connect to her: the clerk mr leonard bast sits next to her at a concert and walks back to the house with her because helen has accidentally taken his umbrella (yes, we ARE in england afterall). they talk and he reveals he has a yearning for adventure, for a sort of inner life, a concept margaret and helen often think and talk about with each other. when they meet again years later, neither sister remembers him, but the reappearance of him and his wife are vital to the plot. after the funeral, the wilcoxes receive a note from the late mrs wilcox in which she asks her husband to give margaret the property howards end. the wilcox children are shocked and upset, and the eldest son, charles, immediately assumes margaret must have plotted to get the country house. the family decide to not mention the note and to just ignore it, since it was only written in pencil and surely not in a healthy state of mind. margaret is given a silver trinket instead, and is surprised that the family even thought of her, when she was really just an acquaintance.
margaret keeps worrying about a new place for their family, as their lease is about to run out. the siblings leave for their annual visit at their aunt’s house. as they arrive, margaret receives a telegram from mr wilcox, who offers to let them rent one of his properties, on condition that she come back to london rightaway to inspect the house. supposing this would be strictly business, and telling herself off for even thinking the widower might have a different agenda, she travels back to the city. mr wilcox in a surprising scene then asks her to marry him. she travels back to the aunt’s house to think about it and realizes she wants to say yes.
the wilcox’s daughter is to get married first, and margaret is to be introduced to the family and friends on that occasion. margaret shows she is not your run-of-the-mill english girl on more than one occasion. helen, who has refused to attend the wedding because she cannot stand mr wilcox, suddenly appears with leonard bast and his wife, who, she claims, were starving because of mr wilcox’s mean-spiritedness or at least because of his flawed advice. margaret gets angry at her sister, possibly for the first time ever. she tells her to take them to a hotel and that she will try to get her fiance to pull some strings so bast can get a job. this is where the hot sauce thickens: a little later, mr wilcox and margaret run into bast’s wife, who had stayed behind at the reception to strengthen herself with food and champagne from the buffet, and she recognizes him as a former lover.
well this is how far i’ve gotten up to now (chapter xxvii), and i can’t wait to find out how this all ends.
so here’s the rest of the plot. margaret reasons that the affair is in the past, and is therefore his first wife’s issue, not her own. she forgives him. helen, margaret’s younger sister, finds out about the disgrace of mr wilcox (who betrayed the later mrs wilcox ten years earlier) and flees to germany, leaving instructions with tibby to have a large sum of money given to the basts. they refuse to accept, and when helen has tibby try again, they have already been evicted from their lodgings. in the meantime, margaret hears that mrs avery, the charwoman left in charge of howards end, has been unpacking their boxes of books, and she goes there to try and get her to repack everything. mrs avery turns out to be less confused than she had assumed, and margaret is surprised to hear that she expects her to live at howards end immediately. the old woman’s speech is prophetic and upsets and confuses margaret.
margaret is worried about helen’s unwillingness to see or speak to her. the younger sister’s avoidance lasts for months until finally, because their aunt becomes critically ill, she agrees to return to england for a brief visit – again refusing to see margaret. when the aunt recovers before helen’s arrival from london, helen changes her plans, asking to know where the old furniture and books are so she can pick up one or two things before returning to her chosen exile. by this time margaret has spent so much time thinking about helen’s peculiar behaviour and how it must be connected with mr wilcox’s betrayal of his first wife that she fears helen might be ill. mr wilcox, who is by then her husband, suggests they lure her to howards end (where the furniture and books are indeed stored) and catch her there, with a doctor in tow. he makes it very clear that the ill may be lied to without scruples and basically lose their rights. he lied to his wife when she was ill, promising to take her to howards end but putting her into a care facility instead. margaret worries that he might act with too much force – her idea of illness is not at all like his. he assumes helen to be insane.
helen takes the bait and comes to howards end. they arrive at the house late, but not too late. when they arrive, margaret jumps out of the car (the second time she jumps out of a moving vehicle!) and races to the garden gate, locking it behind her, right in her husband’s (and the doctor’s) face. she looks to the front porch and sees her sister who is very obviously with child. she rushes her into the house and goes back to talk to her upset husband who demands the doctor see helen right there and then. margaret finally puts her foot down and tells him to go, and that she will speak with him later. it turns out that helen seduced mr bast and, knowing that english society does not tolerate adulterers (or adulteresses), has decided to leave england for good. mr wilcox’s trespass has long been forgiven.
the sisters spend the night at howards end (against mr wilcox’s protests) and margaret – seeing that the differences between her husband and herself cannot be bridged – decides to go to germany with her sister to take care of her and the baby. early the next morning, his eldest son charles comes to evict them from the property. as they are inside talking, mr bast, who has become a professional beggar but is now tormented with a need to confess his trespass against helen, arrives to talk to margaret. he hears the sisters’ voices and shouts his confession. charles grabs the sword from the wall and hits bast with the flat of the blade to drive him away. bast has a heart attack and dies. charles is charged with manslaughter and sent to jail. this finally breaks something in mr wilcox and he turns to margaret for help. margaret, seeing her husband’s state, realizes there are two invalids she needs to care for, and negotiates with him.
at the end of the novel, helen’s little boy is almost old enough to walk. a farm boy has befriended him, and the sisters live fairly happily at howards end. mr wilcox is confined to the house because of his terrible hayfever, but seems to have come to terms with living in the country now. this is where margaret finally finds out that mrs wilcox, before her death, willed howards end to her. another instance of prophecy if you will.