If you’ve ever been sucked into a period drama by the enchanting architecture — ornate marble fireplaces, wood-paneled libraries, grand staircases just made for illicit kisses — then you understand the allure of the titular country home in Howards End. The house and its gardens represent bucolic England at its best, with perfectly maintained lawns, blowsy wildflowers, and piles of wisteria framing the sort of house that’s been central to British literature for decades. Remember the Dashwoods’ scurry to find a home after getting booted from their lavish estate because of some misogynistic inheritance laws in Sense and Sensibility? Or the dangerous allure of Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca? For the English, the house is a signifier of far more import than most Americans can understand. It’s a direct tie to class and heritage.
So when the Wilcoxes receive a beyond-the-grave note from their mother, indicating in one unadorned sentence that she “should like Miss Margaret Schlegel to have Howards End,” they lose their snooty heads. The house has no monetary value for them, and in fact they frequently malign its small rooms and cottage-like impression. For the nouveaux riche like the Wilcoxes, nothing but an estate would fully signify that they’d arrived. But Howards End represented their mother’s very soul. To give it away to an outsider means admitting that she didn’t entirely belong to them — and that she may not have considered them worthy of its inheritance.
The gathering of the Wilcoxes around the breakfast table is a tremendous scene, with most of the lines taken directly from Forster’s novel, but with Kenneth Lonergan’s adept layering of dialogue as icing on the cake. The Wilcoxes, of course, miss the point entirely, first proposing that perhaps Margaret “unduly influenced” their sick mother into modifying her will, then stuttering about the legality of the enterprise, and finally attacking Margaret’s choice of funeral flowers because clearly only a deranged maniac would bring colored blooms to a funeral. (“Pencil never counts,” however, should be considered a valid argument about virtually any documentation.)
Only Mr. Wilcox defends Margaret — a fact that will feel like a bit of foreshadowing later in the episode — proving himself the unlikely voice of reason among his understandably upset, but still monstrous, children. The Wilcoxes really prove who they are in this scene: alleged capitalists who believe only in meritocracy but can’t stand to see something they haven’t earned taken from them, desperately clinging to something they don’t even want.
Yet Margaret naïvely only thinks the best of them, noting to Helen that Mr. Wilcox, in an “extraordinarily generous” act, gifted her Mrs. Wilcox’s silver vinaigrette. (Which is not, in fact, a salad dressing dispenser, but a small box that women would have used to carry vials of perfume.) Of course, we know that Mr. Wilcox must have done so to assuage a bit of his own guilt.
It’s important to note that, although it’s easy to loathe the selfish, superior Wilcoxes, the Schlegels too have some serious moral failings. They preach progress and, as we see in this episode, see it as their duty to uplift the downtrodden. But Helen and Margaret shush Tibby when he quite rightly points out that Mr. Wilcox’s rubber empire is a “business of killing black Africans.” They really can’t be bothered to hear the ugly details. In their way, the Schlegels are the worst sort of progressives. Rich enough to avoid any of the real muck, they toss about revolutionary ideas over luncheons that are cleared away by black housemaids, and nobody stops to consider their hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, the Bast household in still in chaos. After being harangued by a needy Jacky yet again, Leonard heads out for a walk — and seemingly doesn’t come back. Moved first to fear and then irritation, Jacky looks through his things and finds the calling card that Margaret passed to Leonard during their initial meeting at the concert hall. For Jacky, who is being kept like a married woman but with none of its security, the card is an ominous sign that Leonard may be entangled with another woman. And so, she sets out the next day find him at the Schlegel’s house. Except, of course, he isn’t there.
In a mini-series that excels at conversation, the confusion and subtle politics at play in the Schlegel’s foyer make this a scene that ranks among the best. Like good Edwardians, none of the women ever says precisely what Jacky suspected Leonard might be doing at their home. Jacky’s accent, along with her slightly excessive finery, immediately marks her as an inappropriate guest (even the housemaid knows that Jacky doesn’t belong in that house). But each woman slowly comes to understand that she’s been mistaken. For Jacky, that leads to the humiliation of exposure. For the Schlegels, it merely creates a titillating mystery: What exactly is going on in the life of the unassuming Mr. Bast?
Leonard, chuffed at his wife’s faux pas, comes to explain that he was simply walking all night. But if he expected confusion, he instead finds kinship. “How marvelous,” Helen exclaims. And they beg more information from him. “Was the dawn wonderful?” she asks. “No,” he replies, “the dawn was only gray.” But such an answer isn’t a disappointment; it begins to forge a bond between Leonard and Helen, who see in each other a fellow soul who is willing to follow mood rather than convention. Alas, the mood falters when Leonard realizes that his reading list — like books of the subpar naturalist Richard Jeffries — is an object of pity for the aggressively educated Schlegels. The next time he sees a chance to create an intellectual bond with the sisters is dashed as well, when Mr. Wilcox and Evie interrupt another tea at the Schlegels.
The reason for that tea — just as Leonard worries, the Schlegels really aren’t only interested in him for his company — is a piece of information regarding Leonard’s employment that Mr. Wilcox passes along to the Schlegels during their impromptu meeting by the Thames on Chelsea Embankment. Wandering by, he spots the sisters, who are, of course, simply “admiring the sunlight on the water” — something that his facial expression indicates he has certainly never considered wasting time doing. They put to him the question they have just been rather tastelessly debating with their friends: What on Earth does one do about a poor friend? Mr. Wilcox has no read-made remedies for curing the ailing poor — and doesn’t necessarily think one should intervene at all (he later makes the excellent point that “this man has his own life, what right have you to conclude it is an unsuccessful one?”), but he does have a tip. The Porphyrion, the insurance firm where Leonard is employed as a clerk, is sure “to smash by Easter.” The Schlegels, eager to take on Leonard as a project, eat up this bit of information and promise to warn him away from his current job.
As for Mr. Wilcox’s news, it’s more real estate business. He’s taken a house on Ducie Street (a real street that’s relocated to much posher environs for the purpose of the show) and an estate in Shropshire, leaving Howards End to a tenant. The Schlegels, too, are on the hunt for a new home. The house they’ve lived in since early childhood is being torn down to make way for flats, and they have mere months to find a suitable place.
The three part ways on the Embankment with the chasm between Helen and Mr. Wilcox further widened by his seeming indifference to Leonard’s affairs, but with a hint of romance between Mr. W. and the elder Miss Schlegel. Which is why it’s no surprise that Evie’s invite to Margaret for lunch at Simpson’s (the oldest-school of the old-school London dining establishments) also includes her father. Helen jokes it’s a “ploy to drive M into the arms of Mr. Wilcox” and … maybe it is.
And oh, they are charmed by one another, despite Mr. Wilcox’s pushy insistence on ordering for Margaret and acting as if a nearly 30-year-old woman doesn’t know what type of cheese she likes best. Margaret schools him with her knowledge of obscure German cheeses (or perhaps Swiss — do we have any monger readers out there?), but still, the relationship is a bit troubling. This is, after all, a man whose last wife believed that political discussion was best left to men and who wasn’t even slightly intrigued by the rumbling suffrage movement across England.
In return — as perhaps a sweet form of payback and a chance to test him — Margaret invites Mr. W. to a place where he’ll feel off-kilter: Eustace Miles, one of the first popular health food restaurants and the physical base for many of the era’s suffragettes. Mr. Wilcox battles through it ably, eating up his “proteins” and even claiming to like them. The banter between the two is lively and gag-inducing for Tibby, who clearly would rather be off playing somber sonatas on the piano and not watching his sister go all googly-eyed at a man whose interests seem positively Martian to the teenage scholar.
Let’s take a brief moment to honor Tibby, the comedic heart and soul of this mini-series. Watching Tibby watch Margaret and Mr. Wilcox — let’s be informal now and call him Henry — is one of the great joys of this episode. His facial contortions alone ought to earn Alex Lawther a spot as a best supporting actor at the Globes. His droll delivery (“This is ghastly”) and ability to pass off snobbishness hilariously (“Does anyone like Dostoevsky really … you can’t go a single page without someone collapsing on the floor”) balance out an otherwise intellectually heavy show.
The episode ends with a strange parallel to its beginning. Henry invites Margaret to see his house on Ducie Street, which he’s decided to give up due to its large size and his nearly empty nest. Instead of denying Margaret a house that is, ethically if not legally, hers, he offers her a different one. Of course, a house is never just a house.