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Howards End: Forster's Novel of Family and Social Class

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  • 0:05 Background
  • 0:52 Plot Overview
  • 8:38 Class & Family
  • 11:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Throughout his career, British author E.M. Forster wrote about class barriers as an impediment to human connection. His most famous exploration of that theme is the 1910 novel 'Howards End.' Learn about that novel's plot, characters and ultimate message here.

Background

As you might have learned from our previous lesson on E.M. Forster, this English author was obsessed with social class and human connection throughout his whole career. Nowhere is that more clear than in Howards End, a novel that he published in 1910 that I think is arguably his most famous. You might know it because it was made into a movie in 1992; it got a ton of Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Emma Thompson's in it, and she's amazing (like she always is).

But, in the novel, the main point of Howards End can really be summed up by its epigraph, which is the quote at the end of a book. That just says 'Only connect.' As we go through the summary of this novel's plot and we take a look at its characters, think about what that might mean for these people. How do they succeed and fail at making connections with each other?

Plot Overview

Before I get started, I want to point out that there is actually no one in this book named Howard. So, that's cool. Great - let's go.

Howards End principally focuses on three families, each representing a different aspect of turn-of-the-century middle class culture in England. Why does Forster choose to focus on the middle class? That's up for debate, and it's something we'll talk about a little bit later. First I've got to let you know what happens in this book. It gets a little complicated and soap-opera-y, so please stick with me. First thing to remember is that we're really going to focus on three different families.

The first are the Wilcoxes, and they're the wealthiest of the group. They're a business-obsessed family, and they've made their money through enterprises in the British colonies. Forster loves to talk about colonialism; if you watch the video on A Passage to India, you'll know that.

Next, there are the Schlegels, three orphaned siblings whose inheritance allows them to be artists and intellectuals of the cultural elite.

Lastly, there are the Basts. They are a struggling lower-middle-class family that are always trying to improve their socioeconomic standings through both hard work and embracing culture, but they never really seem to succeed at either.

Howards End starts with a brief love affair between the younger Wilcox brother (that's the wealthiest family) and the youngest Schlegel sister (that's the middle family). Those characters are Paul and Helen. This serves as a springboard to introduce the two families, so when the Wilcoxes conveniently end up moving to a flat across the street from the Schlegels, the families already have some familiarity with each other. Despite the potential for some post-breakup awkwardness, the Wilcox matriarch, whose name is Ruth, easily befriends the eldest Schlegel sister, Margaret. As it turns out, Ruth is terminally ill (convenient), and she feels so drawn to Margaret that she rewrites her will to leave the eldest Schlegel sister her family home at Howards End (there's where the name comes in). The industrious Wilcox family - specifically Ruth's widower, Henry - is suspicious of this change (as you might be if your wife or mother rewrote her will to leave your family home to someone else). They're also suspicious of the Schlegels and decide not to let Margaret know about the will change once Ruth passes away. That's shady.

How did the Bast family come in? Well, the Schlegels run into them while they're out at a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (because they're classy). At first, the patriarch Bast, Leonard, is very suspicious of these three well-to-do single ladies here out on the town, but he's also attracted to the fact that they're very cultured because the Bast family is always looking to culture to improve their social standing. The families meet and chat, and Leonard happens to let it slip that he's got a job as a hard-working insurance clerk but he never really seems to get anywhere in his career. The Schlegels store this information away for later.

The Wilcoxes and the Basts intersect when Margaret and Helen Schlegel run into Henry Wilcox one night, and they tell him about this nice guy they met at the symphony and how he's a hard-working guy but he's not really getting where he wants to go in his career. They think maybe Henry, a wealthy businessman, might have some good tips for Leonard to help him get on his feet. Henry sort of offhandedly mentions that he thinks the company Leonard works for is doomed to fail and that Leonard should quit his job, which is a bold thing to tell someone. The Schlegels tell this to Leonard, who resents their intrusion into his life but also ends up taking Henry's advice (probably thinking that this successful, wealthy guy knows what he's talking about). As you may have guessed, this ends up not going well for Leonard. He's unable to find another job, and it looks like he's on his way to the poorhouse. That's not great.

Speaking of houses, Henry Wilcox is helping Margaret Schlegel look for a new place for the Schlegels to live. They've actually sort of become friends since Ruth died, which is strange because Henry's keeping this big secret from Margaret that Ruth left her the home at Howards End. While Henry's helping Margaret find a new place to live, he suddenly proposes to her, which seems like it comes out of nowhere; even Margaret's surprised, but she does accept.

It's not all roses and wedding bells just yet. Margaret's always trying to get Henry to open up and connect with people of different classes, which is a very Forster thing to have someone try to do. It's a problem that he's had; he doesn't really want to deal with people who he doesn't think are of the same standing as him. This tension really comes to a head at a family party, where Helen Schlegel feels a lot of sympathy for Leonard Bast in his situation (especially because her family may have been involved in it). So Helen's angry at Henry for causing Leonard to lose his job. Everybody with me? Great. The Schlegels then ask Henry if he could find Leonard a job. They think it's maybe the least he can do since he told him to quit his job and that hasn't gone well. In the course of this conversation, it's revealed that some time long ago, Leonard's wife, Jacky, was Henry's mistress - because why not? Like I said, it gets soap-opera-y. Henry had abandoned her in a foreign country with no way to get home, which helped contribute to her lower social class that she has today (since she basically returned home with nothing). Plot twist, drama!

Margaret forgives Henry for these actions - since he did them before she even knew him - but Helen can't, which leads to a rift in the Schlegel clan. The plot thickens when, in the midst of comforting Leonard, Helen ends up sleeping with him. You know what happens? Of course, she gets pregnant! She immediately retreats to Germany, as one does, to hide the scandal. However, circumstances bring her back to England, where Henry and Margaret confront her at Howards End. They fear that she's become mentally ill and that's why she's been so dodgy and hiding away. When she shows up, of course, they discover that - no, no - she's pregnant, and it's with Leonard Bast's baby! Henry demands that Helen, the deviant, get out of his house. Margaret, of course, is shocked at his treatment of her sister, and she says that she's going to go back to Germany with Helen if Henry won't accept her at Howards End.

As it happens, the next day, Leonard - who's gotten wind that Margaret's at Howards End - wants to apologize for what happened between him and her sister. Henry's son, Charles (new guy), actually attacks Leonard for dishonoring his family when he comes onto the property. Even though Charles only hits Leonard with the flat side of his sword (I guess that's what people did then), it causes Leonard to grab onto a bookcase that falls on top of him, which, in turn, causes his heart to give out. He dies. Because of that, Charles is actually charged with manslaughter and sentenced to prison for three years.

Everything's looking pretty bad right now, right? Well, it turns out that this drama is actually enough to push the Schlegels and Wilcoxes to set themselves right. Henry is so shocked by this turn of events that he turns to Margaret for help. He's finally ready to open up to people and be accepting the way that she wanted because he's seen the consequences when you try to keep people apart. Henry and Margaret reconcile with Helen, who's in Germany with her illegitimate baby. They all move in to Howards End together. Henry finally gives Howards End to Margaret the way that he was always supposed to, and the property will go to her nephew, Helen's child, when she dies. A new day has dawned for these three families.

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