A major theme in Howards End is connection-connection between private and public life, connection between individuals-and how difficult it is to create and sustain these connections. The story of Howards End focuses mainly on two families: the Schlegels, who represent intellectualism, imagination, and idealism-the inner life of the mind-and the Wilcoxes, who represent English practicality, expansionism, commercialism, and the external world of business and politics. For the Schlegels, personal relationships precede public ones and the individual is more important than any organization. For the Wilcoxes, the reverse is true; social formalities and the rules of the business world reign supreme.
Through the marriage of Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox, these two very different worlds are connected. Margaret, unlike her wildly idealistic sister Helen, moves toward an understanding of the Wilcoxes. Helen’s initial encounter with the Wilcoxes proves disastrous, but Margaret begins to realize that many of the things she values, such as art and culture, would not exist without the economic and social stability created by people such as the Wilcoxes. “More and more,” she says, “do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.”
Margaret and Henry’s marriage nearly comes to an end, however, when Henry is unable to make an important connection between his sexual transgression with Jacky Bast and Helen’s liaison with Leonard Bast. Margaret and Helen want to spend the night together at Howards End before Helen returns to Germany to have her baby. But the hypocritical Henry cannot tolerate the presence of a “fallen woman” on his property, and refuses to allow Margaret and Helen to remain there for the night. As the critic Malcolm Bradbury has written, Margaret insists on the “primacy of the standard of personal sympathy” while Henry emphasizes “the standard of social propriety.” Margaret and Helen defy Henry by staying the night at Howards End, where they reestablish their relationship. By the novel’s end, events force Henry to reconsider his values. He is reconciled to Helen, and along with Margaret and Helen’s illegitimate son, they live together at Howards End under Margaret’s guardianship.
The two families in the book also help focus on the struggle and conflict within the middle class in Edwardian England. The aristocracy and the very poor do not make an appearance in this novel; the novelist states that “[w]e are not concerned with the very poor,” but instead with the “gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.” The three families in Howards End each represent different levels of the middle class. The Schlegels occupy the middle position, somewhere between the Basts, who exist at the lower fringes of the middle class, and the Wilcoxes, who belong to the upper-middle class. Leonard Bast, the clerk, lives near the “abyss” of poverty, while the Schlegels live comfortably on family money, and Henry Wilcox, the wealthy businessman who grows steadily richer, has money for “motors” and country houses.
Leonard Bast is somewhat obsessed by class differences, and tries to improve himself by becoming “cultured.” He reads books such as Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and attends concerts. He meets the Schlegel sisters at a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and becomes interested in them mainly because they seem to take his intellectual aspirations seriously. Although Leonard and his situation fascinate the Schlegels, their connection ultimately proves fatal. When Margaret and Helen hear from Mr. Wilcox that the company Leonard works for is about to go bankrupt, they advise him to find another position. The information proves to be unsound, but Leonard follows it, leaving him and his wife Jacky nearly penniless. In the scene where Leonard, Jacky, and Helen storm into Evie’s opulent wedding, Forster illustrates the huge social and economic gulf between the nearly destitute Basts and the wealthy Wilcoxes. This scene, as the critic Frederick P. W. McDowell has noted, “suggests that the impersonal forces by which the Wilcoxes prosper have operated at the expense of Leonard and his class.”
Leonard is destroyed by a combination of the Wilcox’s indifference and Helen’s sympathy. Helen tries to convince Henry that he has a responsibility to help Leonard, because his advice essentially caused Leonard’s ruin. When that proves futile, Helen’s sympathy for Leonard overwhelms her and she sleeps with him. Upon discovering that Leonard is Helen’s “lover,” the brutish Charles Wilcox beats Leonard with the flat of the Schlegel family sword. Leonard dies not from the beating, but from a weak heart. He sinks to the floor, knocks over a bookcase and is buried in an avalanche of books, seemingly a victim of his own desire for self-improvement.
Closely related to the themes of connection and class conflict in Howards End is the theme of inheritance. The novel concerns itself with the question of who shall inherit England. At the time Howards End was published, England was undergoing great social change. The issue of women’s emancipation, commercial and imperial expansion, and the possibility of war with Germany were all factors that contributed to a general feeling of uncertainty about the future of England. According to the critic Lionel Trilling, Howards End itself symbolizes England. It belongs to Ruth Wilcox, who descends from the yeoman class, and represents England’s past. Before Ruth dies, she befriends Margaret Schlegel, and on her deathbed she scribbles a note leaving Howards End to Margaret. She cannot leave it to her family because the only feeling they have for it is one of ownership; they do not understand its spiritual importance in the same way she knows Margaret will. The Wilcoxes dismiss Ruth’s note as impossible, and disregard it completely, ignoring the rightful heir. But Margaret’s connection with Ruth Wilcox in the novel is strong. Not only is she Ruth’s spiritual heir, but she actually becomes Mrs. Wilcox and, ironically, inherits Howards End through her marriage to Henry.
Foster’s answer to the question of who shall inherit England seems to suggest a shared inheritance. As the novel draws to a close, the intellectual Schlegels and the practical Wilcoxes are residing together at Howards End, and its immediate heir, Helen’s illegitimate son, seems to symbolize a classless future.