Still reeling over the all-points collision of the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts of Episode 3 of Howards End? Brace yourself, there’s more coming in this final episode, along with some melodrama, coincidences, toxic masculinity, and inexplicable decisions. In other words, business as usual.
We last saw Margaret writing a letter, and it turns out it was to Henry. Surprisingly, she tears it up, and even more surprisingly, writes to Leonard Bast telling him she can offer no more assistance. She has decided to throw her lot in with Henry, all or nothing, and informs him that they are still engaged. Henry tries to explain himself in a rare moment of vulnerability, and Margaret assures him he is forgiven:
I was very lonely and longed to hear a woman’s voice…
Your sheltered life and refined pursuits—your friends, books, your sister, and women like you—how can you guess at the temptation that lies around a man? I know. I have bitter experience. Yet you say it will make no difference.
Helen is not at the small wedding, which isn’t surprising since she is somewhere in Germany, and being very evasive on her whereabouts. The only person who has seen her since she left after Edie’s wedding is Tibby. He was home (teaching himself Chinese, because, well, Tibby) when she arrived deeply upset, announcing that she was leaving the country. She asked Tibby to arrange a check for £5,000—a huge amount of money, and half of her capital—to be sent to the Basts. The check is returned. Tibby moves into the Wilcox’s Ducie Street house, but all the Schlegels’ furniture and books are stored at Howards End. Margaret once again walks through the rooms of an empty house, this time saying goodbye.
Dolly Wilcox visits Margaret, who’s looking over the plans for the new house she and Henry plan to build in Sussex. Dolly mentions that thei charwoman, Miss Avery, has started to unpack the Schlegels’ belongings, including the books, which alarms Margaret. Almost certainly Dolly’s visit has been at the request of her husband Charles, who still believes the Schlegels are trying to take possession of Howards End. Margaret travels to the house and we start getting into Rebecca territory, with Miss Avery as a Mrs. Danvers in reverse. Margaret is torn between delight at seeing her beloved possessions, including a family sword, and frustration at Miss Avery who has her own opinions on the matter.
Miss Avery: The house has been empty long enough.
Margaret: I daresay we didn’t explain it. It’s a mistake, our mistake.
Miss Avery: Oh Mrs Wilcox, it has been mistake upon mistake for fifty years.
Margaret: It’s all a mistake. Mr. Wilcox and I are not going to live at Howards End.
Miss Avery. Oh indeed… You think you are not coming back to live here, Mrs. Wilcox, but you will… You are living here now.
Margaret: Am I?
Aunt Juley falls gravely ill and Margaret sends a telegram to Helen, insisting that she must come home. But Aunt Juley recovers, and Helen, using their bank’s address, writes that she wants some of her books. Margaret and Tibby request that she meet them at the bank, but wheb she doesn’t show up they’re concerned enough to ask Henry for help. Making it clear that everyone must do as he says, Henry dictates a letter to Margaret in which she invites Helen to come to Howards End for her books.
As they leave, they don’t notice Leonard Bast on the street. Leonard searches for the Schlegels, and when he arrives at Ducie Street, the maid relays a message from Tibby that Margaret is at Howards End.
Meanwhile Margaret, already uneasy that she is deceiving her sister, is made more so by Henry’s management of the meeting, which includes picking up a doctor on the drive to the house. Clearly Henry has made up his mind that Helen is mentally ill. Margaret fumes, and when they arrive at Howards End runs ahead to meet her sister at the door. Helen is noticeably pregnant, and Margaret hustles her back inside, then goes back to confront Henry. From the time they arrive at Howards End Margaret takes over the situation completely, and actually stands guard at the garden gate, blocking the way into the house. She briefly tells Henry that Helen is pregnant, and that she will be the one to deal with it, not him. She has confidence and decisiveness equal to Henry's, but uses them with her own intelligence and compassion. Although she's been somewhat naive previously, she has a terrific grasp on what Helen's future and that of her child will be without support, and is fully conscious of the sexual politics at play here.
Margaret returns to Henry at Charles and Dolly’s house, and tells him that she intends to stay overnight at Howards End with Helen, who will return to Germany the next day. Henry, however, is most concerned that Helen has no visible husband and therefore cannot stay in his house. Why? Margaret asks. Would her condition depreciate the property? She becomes furious when Henry piously insists that he has his children and the memory of his late wife to consider, and rages against his inconsistency and hypocrisy.
Margaret: No more of this, Henry. You will see the connection if it kills you. You have had a mistress; I forgave you. Helen has a lover—you drive her from the house … You’re been spoiled long enough. All your life you’ve been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told you what you are. You are muddled. Criminally muddled. Don’t repent. Just say to yourself, “What Helen has done, I have done.”
Henry: The two cases are different.
Margaret: In what way different? You have betrayed Mrs. Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society. She can’t. You have had only pleasure, she may die.
If Margaret fell in love with Howards End, and thought once that she loved Henry, it’s clear that the love of her life is her exasperating younger sister. Huddled together, they expect that their tender, emotional reunion will be interrupted by irate members of the Wilcox family at any moment. Meanwhile Charles goes blustering off to cross-question Tibby, who grows up a little. Heroically slumped in an armchair, he refuses to betray his sisters, firmly puts Charles in his place at the suggestion that he was implicit in Helen’s affair, and calls him out for being a bully. “What a family!” Charles shouts, as he stomps out of the house, but unfortunately he now knows enough to suspect Leonard Bast.
Astonishingly, Henry, who knows his son has violent tendencies (he has to remind him to restrain himself), sends him to get the two women out of Howards End at dawn. We know that Leonard Bast is on his way there too, and how can this possibly end well?
As Leonard enters the room he has one startled moment in which he realizes that Helen is pregnant before Charles attacks, announcing that he’s going to give him a good thrashing. Charles grabs the Schlegel family sword that Miss Avery so carefully put on display as his weapon, and the two blunder around the room, amidst shouting, screaming, and general chaos. A bookcase is knocked over. It falls on top of Leonard.
Yes, he is killed by a falling bookcase. Take a moment to absorb the symbolism.
To continue: Margaret meets Henry again in Charles and Dolly’s garden, and we realize that some time has passed. She flings the keys to Howards End at Henry and announces that she and her sister are leaving for Germany and will live there. But she hasn’t thought through the implications of Leonard’s death. The inquest revealed that Bast had heart disease which would have shortly killed him, but that does not clear Charles. Almost certainly he is to be tried for manslaughter and imprisoned, and even with his considerable power and influence, Henry cannot save him. He turns away from Margaret, weeping. Her eyes well up, but significantly she doesn’t move or speak to comfort him.
At this point the episode has about ten minutes to wrap everything up, and so it’s not that surprising to next find Margaret, Helen, and a toddler sitting in the garden at Howards End. Two years have passed, and inside the house there’s a Wilcox family conference, to which they are shortly invited. Youngest son Paul, with whom Helen had a brief, embarrassing affair in Episode 1, is back from Africa, sporting a mustache to prove that he’s All Grown Up. The family has decided that the house should be given to Margaret, and Dolly remarks that it’s just as Ruth Wilcox intended. Henry—a kinder, gentler version of himself—tells Margaret that it’s an old story, and that he'd checked the legality of the "gift," and Ruth didn’t really leave it to her. That’s not quite how I remember it, but everyone seems satisfied and Margaret says he did no wrong.
Margaret and Henry leave the house hand in hand and stroll across a lush green meadow, accompanied by Helen and her son.
And that’s our happy ending, except … what about Dolly, whose life has clearly been ruined, and whose distress is so evident, shamed by her imprisoned husband? What about Jacky Bast, who we last saw when Leonard left their apartment, with most of their money, to travel to Howards End?
I have to admit that I found it intrusive when the series took pains to hint at the coming of World War I—in this episode there’s acknowledgment of a changing world when it’s mentioned that Paul may not stay in Africa indefinitely, and the film closes with a beautiful shot of the English landscape with thunder rumbling in the distance. Not to mention the use of a German sword on an Englishman. (Pause to note the symbolism.) To be fair, the hostilities between Britain and Germany grew over decades, so almost certainly E. M. Forster would have been aware of the possibility of war coming sooner rather than later.
The other failure of the series was that the color-blind casting didn’t quite work here, mostly because two lower-class characters were acted by women of color—Annie, the Schlegels’ maid, and Jacky Bast, which seemed to imply that they were visible as such. Other actors of color were portrayed as the Schlegels’ friends, but at the same time there was a reluctance for anyone to engage seriously in discussion of the rubber industry which provided wealth for the Wilcox and Schlegel families, let alone racism. Certainly London was a diverse city with a thriving black population in this period and I applaud the series for presenting it as such.
What did you think of this last episode and the series as a whole? Let’s discuss!