Episode two of Howards End flew past in record style, to the point where I had to check my watch for the time. It’s a mark of the strength of the Hettie Macdonald’s directing and Kenneth Lonergan’s writing that these episodes are so engrossing. They certainly don’t feel like the 55-minute running time.
This episode begins with a big reveal (spoilers, obviously), as Ruth Wilcox’s final note before her death bequeaths the family home Howards End to Margaret Schlegel. Margaret has no idea, and the wealthy Wilcox family are indignant, resolving to keep this dying wish a secret from the unknowing heiress. Nevertheless, widow Henry Wilcox is back in London, and making clear efforts to spend time with her. What his intentions can quite be, the drama doesn’t yet reveal.
Matthew McFadyen gets a bit more screen time this episode as Henry. Although a little young for the role, he uses his rich voice to great effect. While it can be soft in films like 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, he can make it boom obnoxiously for Howards End. It comes in handy – Henry is the perennial mansplainer of the early 20th century, domineering conversations with such authority that its other participants can only lose or draw in a meagre fashion. Atwell and McFadyen capture the burgeoning attraction between their characters well, although sometimes it’s a little painful to watch Margaret lose her voice.
Similarly, something is brewing between Leonard Bast and Margaret’s sister Helen, but the reason for the attraction is less clear. Bast is living in a situation that the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels would judge as abject poverty, although it isn’t quite that. He’s proud and consistently angry in his own insecurity. The fact he’s looking after Jacky does count in his favour but he’s not often sympathetic to her. As to what draws Helen to him aside from charity, that’s a bit of a mystery too.
Even the two sisters can be testing at times, blindly trying to do good without realising that they’re being patronising. At least their constantly testing brother Tibby is honest when he feels like it (which is always). They are trying, though. In a line that takes a common theme of the novel with a little invention, Margaret reflects –
‘So often I feel we live chattering away at the edge of a great abyss. I don’t want to close my eyes to it or comfortably pretend it’s not there, but I don’t want to live in it.’
The problem is that they’re so blind to the poorer classes, that they can’t properly communicate with those who they’re trying to help, or recognise how that help might be perceived. The sisters’ effort is admirable in the care behind it, and a great deal more acceptable than Henry’s attitude of doing nothing, but it’s not without its flaws. That moment with Jacky as she stormed into the Schlegel’s house to find her husband was a brief and deeply complex look at co-dependency and fear in relationships, but to Margaret and Helen, it was merely confusing.
We’re halfway through and I’m starting to feel like we’ve only scratched the surface with Howards End. I haven’t seen it fully break away from the novel’s constraints, but I have seen it challenge and examine the key themes so far. That’s a good start – how they continue when the drama ramps up is the next question.