Howards End is set in the Edwardian era, so named after King Edward VII of England. Although his reign spanned only nine years, from 1901 to 1910, many historians extend the period to the start of the World War I in 1914, because of the influence of the king’s personality 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.
The Edwardian era was also a time of great social and political change. Industrialization, which had begun in the 19th 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.