The final episode of the BBC’s Howards End raced to its conclusion, leaving both us and its characters in quiet reflection. Much has changed since the chaotic London house of the Shlegels in the beginning of the story, as oldest sister Margaret now spends her days in a rich stately home (West Wycombe House provides the setting), compromising daily with her boorish husband Henry. Helen, meanwhile, has vanished to Germany, refusing to speak to her family. Tibby is the only one still settled, although I’m not sure anything could pull him away from his studies by the fire.
This adaptation has been a joy in many ways, calling forward with far more modern prescience than you would expect from the Edwardian setting. It deals with the sacrifices people make, from Margaret’s decisions in her marriage to Henry, to Helen’s boundless generosity in helping the poverty-stricken Basts. Nevertheless, neither sister is quite ready for their changed circumstances.
In one pivotal scene, Margaret comes to Howards End, a place that is forever tied to her deceased friend, and discovers that all her own furniture has been arranged in the rooms. It suddenly hits her, just how much her life has altered. The fantastic writing by Kenneth Lonergan comes into play here, as the woman in charge of maintaining the house says to her – ‘Don’t talk about some day – you are living here now!’. Margaret simply replies, stunned – ‘Am I?’.
Helen has her own monumental change to deal with, having conceived a child through a brief tryst with Leonard Bast offscreen. Although she’s not necessarily ashamed, it’s a lasting reminder of a situation where she felt that she couldn’t truly help someone in need. She can’t face Leonard again, but in her own way, picks herself up and resolves to deal with it independently.
Helen’s storyline is affecting, but all too brief. We only saw her and Leonard together for a short minute in the previous episode, leaving quite a leap and a bit of mental arithmetic to figure out when their brief relationship occurred. Worse still is the complete neglect of Leonard’s wife Jacky. Ignoring those characters that live in poverty is something that the book is completely open about, as I mentioned in the episode one review. I had hoped that this adaptation might try to add a new spin on Forster’s choice, but we remain clueless about Jacky’s fate. It’s disappointing, particularly when the Basts’ strange, dependent relationship is easily one of the most fascinating of the group. In this sense, perhaps Lonergan was too adherent to the text.
Despite this flaw, Howards End finds its strength in focusing on the hypocrisy of Henry Wilcox, and by extension, of men in power. Matthew McFadyen plays him perhaps a little too sympathetically – with his wide, kind eyes, it’s sometimes harder to critique the character – but Henry is still completely aware of his own hypocrisy. It’s not malice, but happy complacency that a man of his situation is allowed to enjoy. That same warped view of the world leads him to propose casting out Helen for conceiving child out of wedlock, whilst having been accepted and forgiven for his own extramarital fling years earlier.
Howards End beautifully captures the contrast between men and women of the period. Men were able to have sexual relationships and never fear the consequences. Women were risking so much more, leaving themselves vulnerable to pregnancy, alienation from society and potential death in childbirth. Henry doesn’t even think of things this way, and it’s his privilege that allows him to choose that ignorance.
When this adaptation concluded, Henry had finally turned to self-reflection and together with Margaret, seemed to be on a better path to embracing some of her empathy. However, the episode has a darkly playful ending, as Margaret finds out in the very last few minutes, all about that will that the Wilcoxes deliberately hid from her. If he never came clean about the family’s decision, right up until it came out, can she believe his character reformation? We certainly hope so, for Margaret’s sake, but as the sisters, flanked by their respective husband and child, walk into a scenic field, the slight echo of thunder suggests that it’s not a wholly rose-tinted conclusion. Let’s not forget the tragic fate of Leonard Bast, either.
This version of Howards End has been an excellent turn in a number of ways, from the strong character development to the careful reflections on its themes in the script. The source text could have been pushed from further, especially in the portrayal of the lower classes, but it’s a good example of an adherent adaptation of a novel. There were (very) small steps in nontraditional casting and we got to see powerhouse performances from Hayley Atwell and Alex Lawther. If the BBC could create more of this quality and continue learning from their mistakes (cough, Gunpowder), their drama offering will remain as strong as their reputation still suggests.