Read any advice column for long enough, and you’ll eventually get a question about a spouse or significant other who has one horribly irritating habit — or worse, a behavior that directly undercuts the entire relationship. One person simply cannot show up on time, or turns cruel in an argument, or refuses to take on their share of child care. It’s almost always a tendency that the advice seeker knew about well before committing to the relationship, but thought she could live with, or perhaps hoped that it would subside. “You can’t change someone else,” is the line that’s inevitably trotted out by the columnist, followed by some advice about the necessity of learning to adapt yourself — or else exit the relationship.
Before her engagement, Margaret swore she wouldn’t try to change Henry, that it would be “contemptible and unfair” to do so. But together, they demonstrated a lack of basic communication skills — an inability to “only connect,” an ideal that Margaret passionately reached for. And so now in the final episode, when a series of freight cars comes crashing through their relationship, we see whether the mettle of a couple is decided by their nature or their grit.
Margaret, a woman made of emotional steel, insists on not only forgiving Henry for his long-ago affair with Jacky, but tries to sail right past it, waltzing into the breakfast room and starting the day as if nothing happened. Henry, who prides himself on his “honor,” keeps insisting he isn’t worthy of her until eventually the story of his and Jacky’s affair comes pouring out of him. Posted far from home, he simply grew lonely, he explains, and Jacky was a warm and loving body.
Helen, meanwhile, has succumbed to all her emotional tendencies and arrives back home a wreck, furious with herself for how Leonard’s life has fallen apart and furious with her sister and Henry for their refusal to see things just as she does. She feels dutybound to care for Leonard and explains to Tibby that she needs his help: Helen is leaving the country for Germany, and once she’s gone, she will transfer £5,000 to Tibby that he must then give to Leonard. Tibby is too shocked by the sum — it would equal about half a million dollars today, and represents half of Helen’s lifetime inheritance — to ask why Helen cannot simply give the money to Leonard herself before she leaves.
True to his word, Tibby sends along the money, only to have Leonard send it back. Despite Helen’s insistence that Tibby find the Basts, he at first can’t, and then won’t, telling Helen — in true, dry Tibby fashion — to invest the money in railway stocks. (Helen, if you’re listening, don’t do it! The railway stocks are about to crash in a couple years!)
While Helen is away in Germany, Margaret and Henry marry in a small ceremony and settle in to a comfortable life of teasing and whatever else a fabulously wealthy but rather unsocial British couple might have done in those days. (Cribbage? Hiring and firing domestic staff? Long drizzly walks in which everyone acts as if they’re having a good time but really it’s god-awful and damp?)
The question of where to live still plagues them. As he’s done a half-dozen times in the past, Henry makes a decision without consulting Margaret and lets the Shropshire estate to a tenant, despite her express desire to take up residence there. But it’s more than an oversight: Henry, it seems, ignores information he isn’t interested in, and uses the excuse that Margaret wouldn’t be interested in the details to barrel over her. He doesn’t believe she’s capable of or entitled to a say.
For Margaret, the question of where to live is more than just a matter of location or the arrangement of rooms. Where she lives says something about her — which is why the house on far-too-fashionable Doucie Street is a problem, but the estate in “the wrong part” of Shropshire is ideal. With their lease up and the owner set to tear down their house to make room for a block of flats, the Schlegels move out and their belongings end up in Howards End, while Henry and Margaret plan a house in Sussex.
Helen is still avoiding her family, traveling around the continent and pointedly refusing to see them. It isn’t until Aunt Juley falls ill — and hovers between life and death — that Helen agrees to come to England. But once she discovers that Aunt Juley is on the mend, Helen again demurs. At this point, after months of avoidance, Margaret has grown concerned that Helen is unwell — although Henry and Charles Wilcox latch on to the idea that Helen has gone “mad,” as it better fits their understanding of why an unmarried woman would scuttle off to a foreign country alone (they have their own opinions of what a foul F-word would be).
After a negotiation that takes far too long and unspools a lot of the narrative thread, Margaret finally agrees to trick Helen into visiting Howards End, where the Schlegels are storing all their belongings. It isn’t much of a plan, really — especially since any idiot could see through it —but Henry seizes the opportunity to plan a full-blown psychiatric intervention. They pick up a doctor, literally on the side of the road, and pull him into their plans.
It’s tempting to call Margaret’s inability to notice Henry’s brutishness and bullying a character flaw. After all, we’ve been dazzled by her intelligence and clearheadedness so far. But it isn’t a flaw in her design that allows Margaret to be steamrolled by her husband — it’s an essential aspect of herself that she not fuss over the small things. Because when the stakes are high, Margaret refuses to yield.
She rushes into Howards End, and as Helen turns, we see the reason she’s been hiding away in Europe. She’s pregnant.
The scene at the gate recalls earlier moments of conversational brilliance in the mini-series. Margaret offers just the smallest bit of information — that Helen is “weeks from her confinement” and then insists that they be left to talk alone. This is not one of those moments for the “anger and telegrams” she derided in the first episode. Helen, she knows, needs love and tenderness.
Henry, of course, wants to act immediately to maintain Helen’s “honor” — although the cat is way out of the bag on that one. He offers two options: force “her seducer” to marry Helen, or else “thrash him within an inch of his life.” But he absolutely will not, under any circumstances, allow Helen to sleep at Howards End. Why? Would it, as Margaret snarkily suggests, “depreciate the property”? Well, in a way. It would depreciate the family’s respectability, at least according to Henry.
Henry can anticipate the reactions of the outside world, but he cannot recognize that he is committing a profoundly hypocritical sin by denying Helen some grace. And Margaret won’t stand for it. “Would you forgive her,” she asks “as you have been forgiven?” But Henry cannot put his wife, or his love for her, over his principles, those stubbornly rooted things that Margaret must have known from the beginning would some day come between them. “You are muddled. You are criminally muddled,” she tells him.
Charles, who has been seething with resentment over the fact that “the pater” (ugh) has embraced a new wife — and allowed her to sully Howards End with her possibly mad, definitely dishonorable sister — takes up the matter on his father’s behalf. He prods Tibby for information, and rightly, although he isn’t sure of it, gets only Leonard’s name. In an act of deep deep cowardice, Henry sends Charles over to evict the ladies in the morning.
At the same time (and this is a bit of coincidence too unlikely to be the work of anything other than a novelist who is greatly influenced by the Victorians), Leonard is seeking out Helen. He heads to the house in Wickham Place, but the Schlegels have decamped. And so he tries Howards End, showing up just as Charles is berating Margaret and Helen to leave the family home (which, of course, rightly belongs to Margaret). Leonard takes in her bulging belly and locks eyes with Helen for just an instant before Charles begins to beat him with the family sword, eventually backing him into a wobbly bookcase that topples down, killing him.
An intellectual striver who is killed by his long lost, educationally superior lover’s books? It’s a bit on the nose, Forster, but nonetheless delightfully dramatic.
Margaret arrives to tell Henry that she’s leaving for Germany with Helen after the inquest, and not coming back. But finally, after a death, Henry seems to have tapped into the emotion inside himself. Henry tells her that Charles will be convicted — in fact, he’s used all his influence to make it so.
A few years in the future, Helen and Margaret sit playing with her baby on a blanket — outside Howards End. Henry, who certainly didn’t bear the worst of it, is still “eternally tired” from emotional shock. But he has come around to right his initial wrong — the original sin that set much of their sorrow in motion. Margaret shall have Howards End when he dies, but no money. And that’s when Dolly accidentally lets it slip that Mrs. Wilcox wanted to leave the house to Margaret all along. But she forgives him even that.
As for Jacky, well … nobody seems to remember her. Where did she go? How does she live? Howards End wraps up far too neatly for us to find out.
But what are we to make of the question at the heart of the story? Can these two wildly different creatures intertwine their lives? Forster doesn’t provide an answer, and the mini-series thankfully doesn’t, either. After all, there is none. Only connect.