HOWARDS END (1992, Dir. James Ivory)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Howards End, the 1992 film adaptation of E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel of the same name, was the third (and probably the best) Forster adaptation by director James Ivory and producer Ismael Merchant, following A Room with a View (1985) and Maurice (1987). Though the original Howards End is a highly topical novel that brilliantly captures the texture of a rapidly changing England in the first years of the twentieth century, the film adaptation was highly successful more than eighty years later, winning three Academy Awards and garnering nominations for six others. This adaptation very nicely conveys the main themes of the novel, but it is also an important work of art in its own right. Superbly acted by a top-notch cast, it is also a highly effective period drama whose costuming and set designs do an excellent job of capturing the flavor of English life at the time of the action, especially for a certain upper-middle-class portion of English society. That portion is represented primarily in the character of Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), a walking embodiment of white, male, upper-class privilege. At the same time, in the character of Leonard Bast (Samuel West), Howards End also provides a reminder (as does the novel) that life could be very different for other classes of that society.

This discussion primarily concerns the film version of Howards End, though it is designed to provide an introduction to the novel as well. In terms of the plot, characters, and major themes, the film and the novel are quite consistent, even though the themes, especially, necessarily had different implications in 1910 (when the action was relatively contemporaneous) than in 1992, when the action takes place well in the past. Another major aspect of the novel that is not really conveyed in the film is the rhetoric of the narrative voice, which contains a considerable amount of irony. Primarily narrated in what seems to be an authoritative, omniscient, third-person voice, the novel in that sense seems very much in the tradition of nineteenth-century realism. However, a closer examination shows that this voice sometimes deviates from that tradition, taking positions that actually seem at odds with the implications of the story’s own action. For one thing, the narrator apparently reveals herself rather late in the text to be a woman, upsetting expectations of an authoritative male narrator as is typical in nineteenth-century British fiction, especially by male authors.[1] In addition, the narrator sometimes takes positions that are substantially more positive toward Henry Wilcox and substantially more negative toward Leonard Bast than the events narrated seem to warrant. Such mismatches create an irony that pushes the text away from realism and further into the realm of literary modernism.[2] Those who read this discussion having only seen the film should keep in mind the fact that they are not really experiencing this aspect of the novel.

Both the novel and the film of Howards End are largely structured around a series of polar oppositions, even though these oppositions are sometimes complicated or even deconstructed. In terms of the events of the plot, the most obvious of these is class, which is figured perhaps most strikingly in the opposition between the wealthy and imperious Wilcox and the poor, but sensitive, Bast. However, Wilcox’s haughty attitude toward the poor is part of a worldview that shows a similar disdain and insensitivity toward others who are different from himself, especially women, so that he and both of the women who serve at different points in the narrative as his wives—Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) and Margaret Wilcox, née Schlegel (Emma Thompson)—form another sort of polar opposition within the text. Finally, though, all of the events of the novel and the film are underwritten by a fundamental sense of a society that is in flux, setting up an opposition between the comfort (and stagnation) of tradition and the instability (and promise) of modernity. This opposition is figured most tangibly in the text in the contrast between a bustling, changing London and the almost timeless pastoral world of Howards End, just outside the great city. The opposition between tradition and modernity underlies all of the others, producing a fundamental sense that traditional oppositions based on class and gender are suddenly being called into question amid the sweeping changes underway in English society. It is also for this reason that Forster’s novel, caught up in this contemporary swirl of vertiginous change, is a key work of British modernism, though the film reads more like a realistic period piece designed to a bygone era that now seems old-fashioned.

The opposition between modernity and tradition is figured a number of ways in Howards End. Most of these work to the advantage of tradition, with modernity—whose most vivid human marker is the reprehensible Henry Wilcox—generally coming out on the short end. Ultimately, however, the film recommends a resolution between the two (and between all the other opposites in the text), carrying out the “only connect” injunction that begins the novel. Still, modernity in this story is disruptive—as in the way the Schlegel sisters are evicted from their lifelong home in a charming London townhouse so that the building containing it can be torn down and replaced by a new building divided into flats, which might be sterile and characterless, but which will doubtless be more profitable for the landlord. The eviction of the Schlegel sisters thus dramatizes the way in which the drive for profit in the modern capitalist age takes precedence over all else, including human decency.

Capitalism, of course, offers substantial opportunities for those who are ruthless enough to take advantage of it, such as Wilcox. But it treats most people like commodities, using them to generate profit for the wealthy but caring little for their welfare. This aspect of capitalism is relayed most directly in the story of Leonard Bast, who has managed, despite his humble beginnings as the son of farm laborers, to get a reasonably good position as a clerk in an insurance firm. When Wilcox hears a rumor that this firm might be in danger of going under, he casually (and without any real sense of personal concern) passes that information off to the Schlegel sisters, whom he knows have made Bast’s acquaintance, suggesting that they might advise Bast to seek another position. In a motif that provides an important reminder of the lack of any real security under the capitalist system, Bast takes their suggestions seriously and finds another position immediately, though at the expense of a cut in pay that he can ill afford. When he subsequently loses this new position due to a reduction in staff, thus becoming unemployed altogether, the dramatization of the tenuousness of life under capitalism is complete. Hearing of this development, though, Wilcox seems completely unconcerned that he has been responsible for Bast’s downfall, reminding us of the heartlessness of capitalism as well. Indeed, Wilcox scoffs at the concern shown for Bast by the Schlegel sisters, advising them that to worry about the poor is a fool’s game. “Don’t take a sentimental attitude toward the poor,” he tells them. “The poor are the poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is.”

Wilcox thus essentially repeats the Biblical adage, attributed to Jesus, that “the poor will be with you always,” but in the now widely used sense that there is no point to trying to help the poor—which seems to be almost exactly the opposite of what Jesus meant. What Wilcox’s attitude really resembles, of course, The “problem” of the poor has been a central part of English public discourse since at the least the sixteenth century, triggering a series of official attempts to deal with that problem that were clearly designed, not so much genuinely to help the poor, as to minimize the threat posed by the poor to the wealthier citizens of England. Among these attempts were a series of “Poor Laws,” the first of which was passed by Parliament in 1536, although laws dealing with beggars and vagrants go back even further. Among other things, these laws eventually established the notorious system of English workhouses, the prison-like nature of which indicates the carceral nature of the strategies for dealing with the poor in the English tradition, most of which seem to have been based on a vague suspicion that poverty was a sign, not just of misfortune, but of laziness and moral weakness.

Howards End clearly opposes this notion, even though the novel’s narrator is quite dismissive of Bast’s attempts to improve himself through culture and education. Thus, it is quite clear in via the events of both the novel and the film that Bast’s misfortunes are not attributable to his own failings. At the most fundamental level, that the Schlegels lose their home and that Bast loses his job are part of the same phenomenon: the shifting, ever-changing, never-solid nature of capitalist modernity. Of course, the Schlegels, as is made clear in the text, are in no real peril and can always get another home; Bast, on the other hand, is seriously in danger of starving to death after becoming unemployed. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels captured this aspect of the capitalist system well as early as 1848 in The Communist Manifesto. Though expressing a certain admiration for the ability of capitalism to overcome obstacles to change and overturn potentially regressive institutions and practices, they also warned that capitalism is so devoted to change that all hope of stability is lost:

“Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudice and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, in his relations with his kind” (6).

That this phenomenon should be especially strong in England in the early years of the twentieth century should come as no surprise, given that England was at the time the place where both modernity and capitalism were most dominant and most advanced, though that position would soon be assumed by the United States. It is thus also no surprise that British literature around the beginning of the twentieth century often addressed this environment of dizzying (and sometimes exhilarating) change.

Leonard Bast, for example, is one of a number of characters in British fiction in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries whose stories detail the new possibilities of upward mobility offered by modern society, but also indicating the difficulties that individuals are likely to encounter when pursuing these possibilities. The prototype of all of these characters is probably Jude Fawley, the protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure. Jude is a gifted student who excels in his classes in a country school, becomes enamored of books, and then dreams of going to college and perhaps someday becoming a professor. Because of his humble origins, however, he is not welcome in the world of British academia in the late nineteenth century, no matter how talented he might be. As a result, his ambitions ultimately lead to tragedy (though one could argue that Jude succeeds in a sense, simply because he never gives in and continues to strive to move forward, despite the considerable misfortunes that befall him).

Such characters reflect very real conditions in modern British society, which has long offered opportunities to those who are bright and willing to work hard, but has placed strict limits on those opportunities if these bright, hard-working young people happen to come from the lower classes. The classic case of this situation, and one with great relevance to the story of Leonard Bast, is the British state scholarship system, which, from 1920 to 1962 awarded scholarship support to incoming college students based on their performance in competitive scholarship examinations. This system provided support to a number of working-class students (and, ultimately, to students from the British colonies as well). However, some critics saw this system as a way of drawing the most talented young people out of the working class, thus depriving the working class of their leadership. Meanwhile, these scholarship winners, because of their class origins, were never really accepted into upper-class British society, either, leaving them effectively “declassed.” The subsequent sense of not really fitting in anywhere often caused these individuals significant psychological problems. Studying the case histories of a number of “scholarship boys” in the early twentieth century, the British cultural studies scholar Richard Hoggert found that such boys typically experienced a sense of being “emotionally uprooted from their class” and yet unable to win the genuine respect of cultivated middle-class people: “at one boundary the group includes psychotics; at the other, people leading apparently normal lives but never without an underlying sense of some unease” (225).

In Howards End, Bast’s attempts to better himself are clearly focused on an attempt to better his mind. However, with very little formal education, he must pursue this betterment on his own, which he does by reading books and attending lectures. The narrative foregrounds his reading of George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), which has sometimes been considered to be the first “modern” British novel, breaking free of the conventions of Victorian realism; its eponymous hero, meanwhile, is a sensitive soul who breaks the rules of Victorian behavior, clearly serving as a sort of fantasy role model for Leonard, who thinks of himself as an unconventional type. He also thinks of himself as the artistic type, as when he spends an entire night walking in the woods and fields, in imitation of Richard Feverel.

Such behavior is not, of course, a good recipe for success in the cutthroat world of capitalism, and certainly contributes to Leonard’s demise. But his downfall is more directly attributable to the fact that, while attending a lecture on the meaning of music (and thus attempting to become more “cultured”), he happens to sit next to the idealistic Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter), triggering a series of events that brings him into the Schlegels’ world, an experience that potentially opens up new worlds to him but ultimately leads to his doom. The Schlegel sisters are themselves rather cultured types and also comparatively liberal-minded, a fact that in some ways makes them stand out in their own circle. As the sisters’ Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales) explains at one point early in the film, “All the Schlegels are exceptional. They are British to the backbone, of course, but their father was German, which is why they care for literature and art.”

Of course, refined ladies like the Schlegels are less likely to get into trouble for being interested in literature and art than is Leonard, for whom such things are considered entirely inappropriate. But this suggestion that the sisters might have gotten their interest in culture from their German background suggests that this interest is not really typical of the British, who are more commonly expected to be interested in more practical matters. It is thus highly appropriate that the lecture attended by both Leonard and Helen focuses on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—and thus on (Romantic) German music.

In the same way, the exploration in Howards End of the opposition between tradition and modernity, while generally more sympathetic toward the former, clearly acknowledges that it is more typically British to favor the latter, at least by the early years of the twentieth century. Ruth Wilcox is in some ways the antithesis of her husband, a sort of throwback who lives somewhat in the past, her declining health and eventual death serving in the text as a sort of metaphor for the waning of traditional ways in modern England. She therefore much prefers life at Howards End to life in London and has long attempted to resist her husband’s attempts to modernize the house and grounds at Howards End. That resistance, however, has not been entirely successful, and Henry has nevertheless made a number of update. In the meantime, the urban sprawl of London is creeping toward Howards End, which is in any case easily reachable from London by modern conveyances such as cars or trains. It is therefore no longer entirely rural, serving as a reminder that it is getting more and more difficult to find a place in England that has not been touched by modernity.

In the novel, Forster’s narrator muses at one point on the weakness of England’s native mythologies:[3]

“Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and greater melodies about our countryside have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed there. It has stopped with the witches and fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature—for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk.”

Howards End seems partly to be Forsters attempt to become one of those poets who “voice” England. Meanwhile, in the film, a similar observation (sans the comment about literature) is made by Margaret, who notes, in a discussion with Ruth, “Unlike Greece, England has no true mythology. All we have are witches and fairies.” Meanwhile, though she doesn’t say so (and perhaps does not recognize), the weakness of England’s mythological traditions are part and parcel of the nation’s receptiveness to modernization, progress, industry, and commerce being more suited to the English mindset than are colorful stories about imaginary creatures.

In opposition to Ruth, Henry Wilcox is a much more representative figure of modern Englishness, a successful, practical-minded businessman who believes his success is entirely due to his own merit and who has little sympathy for those with less wealth (and thus, in his view, less merit). He also has no romantic attachment to the past and is perfectly willing to bulldoze anything that gets in the way of his attempts to accumulate more and more wealth. Wilcox, in fact, ultimately emerges as a rather heartless sort who treats other people the same way he would treat any other commodity. This aspect of his personality is seen most clearly in his attitude toward Jacky, with whom it turns out he had an illicit affair in Cyprus, the years before the action of Howards End. A sixteen-year-old orphan stranded in Cyprus after the death of her father, the young Jacky had been in a very vulnerable position, and it is clear that Henry’s relationship with her was one of pure exploitation[4]. It is also clear that, while Wilcox might feel guilty for having broken the rules of British propriety in his liaison with Jacky, he mostly feels bad for getting caught when Jacky suddenly reappears in his life, thanks to Leonard’s relationship with the Schlegels. Horrified, he takes no action to help his former lover, but instead shuns her altogether, insisting that the Schlegels do the same. The Basts thus suffer for an improper action on the part of Wilcox, who clearly feels that it is perfectly appropriate for him to suffer no consequences at all.

The sisters Schlegel are, of course, much more hospitable to the poor, though a closer examination shows their hospitality toward Bast to be somewhat condescending; their attitude toward his “wife” Jacky (Nicola Duffet), who comes from a similar lower-class background (though perhaps more urban), but who has not undertaken her husband’s efforts at self-improvement, is even more so. Indeed, even Leonard seems condescending toward Jacky, with whom he seems to have taken up at least partly out of pity. She is, in fact, clearly suspected (by the Schlegels and others) of having dubious morals, though Leonard realizes that she has largely been victimized by the difficult circumstances of her life. That Henry Wilcox, the story’s principal figure of capitalist modernization, is also her main victimizer clearly carries a certain amount of allegorical weight, suggesting the way in which capitalism itself is to blame for the fact that so many are cast by the wayside, unable to enjoy the fruits of capitalist progress.

Early in Howards End, Ruth Wilcox announces, during a dinner conversation, her theory that“if we could bring the mothers of the various nations together, then there would be no more war.” At the time, this notion seems rather a cliché, though in some ways it sets up the book’s ending, which seems surprisingly hopeful, given all that has happened. Helen Schlegel, at least partly out of a class-based guilt, has engaged in a sexual liaison with Leonard Bast, in her own way bridging the class divide. Helen’s subsequent pregnancy causes her sister Margaret to decide to leave Henry and live with her sister to help raise the child. Henry himself, by the end seems aged and diminished (possibly even a bit humbled), partly because his son Charles (James Wilby) seems fated to go to prison for killing Bast in a fit of rage after learning that Bast had “dishonoured” Helen. But, as the film ends, Margaret and Henry are still together, he apparently having retired to live with her, Helen, and Helen’s son, who seemingly embodies the overcoming of class difference. The famous “only connect” theme of the novel is thus encapsulated in this little family group, which seems to have overcome the fragmentation of life in the modern world. It also seems, at least for the nonce, to have overcome the hustle and bustle of modernity, living together in pastoral tranquility on the estate, which Henry announces will be deeded to Margaret upon his death, something Ruth had originally intended, though Henry had dishonestly thwarted that intention in order to keep the valuable property for himself.[5] Justice is thus restored, and the future of Helen’s child seems secured—though Forster could not have known in 1910 what was coming in 1914, the historical memory of which adds an extra irony for today’s readers of the novel or viewers of the film.


Barrett, Elizabeth. “The Advance Beyond Daintiness: Voice and Myth in Howards End.” E. M. Forster: Centenary Revaluations. Ed. Judith Scherer Hertz and Robert K. Martin. Palgrave Macmillan, 1982. 155–166.

Cannadine, David. “The Context, Performance, and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’, c. 1820-1977.” The Invention of Tradition.  Ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge University Press, 1983.  101-64.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1983.  101-64.

Hoggert, Richard. The Uses of Literacy. 1957. Transaction, 1992.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Ed. David McClellan. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Roby, Kenley. “Irony and Narrative Voice in Howards End.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 2.2 (May 1972): 116–124.


[1] The narrative voice in the novel is complex enough, though, that there might be more than one narrator, of different genders.

[2] On the complexities of the narrative voice in Howards End, see Roby.

[3] On the lack of true traditions in Britain, one might note several of the essays in the volume The Invention of Tradition,” edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Together these essays demonstrate that many of the practices now regarded as “traditional” were in fact invented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to add legitimacy to new practices occasioned by rapid modernization. The essay by David Cannadine, for example, focus on the British monarchy and on the modern invention of monarchic “traditions” as means of endowing the monarchy with a traditional aura it does not, in fact, deserve.

[4] The Mediterranean island of Cyprus officially became a British Crown Colony in 1925, but it was under de facto British rule from 1878. That Wilcox performed this act in a colonial setting subtly implicates British colonialism in the system of privilege and exploitation outlined in the novel.

[5] See Barrett for an argument that this redemptive ending is part of an attempt on the part of Forster to construct a new mythology for England, thus compensating for the lack of traditional mythologies noted earlier in the text. This invention of a new mythology has much in common with the invention of tradition discussed by Hobsbawm and Ranger.