This isn’t Matthew Macfadyen’s first time delightfully bumbling through a thoroughly awkward marriage proposal for a British period piece. After all, he delivered one of the most memorable proposals in British fictional history with his rain-soaked “I have fought against my better judgment” speech in Pride & Prejudice, which ends, as any proposal that starts with a list of reasons why the other person isn’t a suitable mate might, not in engagement but in estrangement, from Elizabeth Bennett. (If it’s a spoiler alert to tell you he wins her back in the end, I’m sorry, but you’re about 200 years behind.)
So, you might say he’s a pro at delivering memorable marriage offers that leave the desired betrothed more befuddled than besotted.
As Henry Wilcox, Macfadyen delivers again. This time, his stuttering and conversational vomit begin when he arrives to pick up Margaret — ostensibly to take her to see his house in Ducey Street — but really to tell her he’d like the honor of her hand in marriage. First, he lays the groundwork by telling her in the car how lonely he’s been since his children have all left or married. It’s sweet, really it is, but perhaps a bit ill-advised to begin your engagement campaign by pointing out that you’re just so damn bored in the evening.
At the house, as he glides from room to room pointing out exact dimensions plucked from his mind — which we know, due to the sheer grandeur of the space around him, must have a way with numbers — Margaret is entirely at ease, plunking into a leather club chair and perhaps already picturing herself rearranging the furniture. But something is obviously stirring inside Henry, and when they enter a new room, he can no longer contain the words that have been wiggling their way up his throat for hours. “I’ve had you here on false pretenses,” he begins, in what sounds like a more fitting way to start a kidnapping than a proposal. But he can’t quite get to the question itself: “Could you be induced to share my … Is it probable …” he stammers on. Luckily for him, Margaret is the picture of grace and intuition, jumping in to assure Henry that she understands him completely. Unconvinced, he pushes on, listing reasons that the woman he’s trying to propose to shouldn’t actually want to marry him: “I’m not of your set. And I’m much older.” But again, despite her relative youth, Margaret is the calm party assuring Henry, “You quite take my breath away,” and promising to write him a reply to the question he has not quite asked. To continue the awkwardness, Henry then proposes they head upstairs and keep up the tour.
But how set up for success is a couple who can’t even bring themselves to utter the phrase “we should marry” … well, before they marry? Their fitness as as couple is the central question that swirls around the episode. Helen, who has been nursing a distaste for Henry’s attitudes ever since his son chickened out of their own engagement, quite loses her head over Margaret’s excitement, declaring, “Don’t do such a thing. I tell you not to.”
Over the course of the mini-series, Helen has shifted more and more toward using intuition and feeling as her guiding principles —- something she has quite consciously modeled after her sister’s stated values. But now Helen and Margaret are engaged in a philosophical debate that’s grounded in a very tangible disagreement: Helen thinks Margaret has abandoned her values by agreeing to marry Henry Wilcox, and Margaret thinks that doing so only affirms her commitment to them.
It’s a conversation that overflows with questions women are still asking themselves more than 100 years later. Is Margaret less of a feminist (though she certainly wouldn’t have used that word) for her profession that “It is a wonderful feeling knowing a real man cares for you”? How can someone enter into a relationship as deliberately consuming as marriage, but still have their partner not become their “entire life”? Is it possible to enter marriage entirely wise to your spouse’s faults? And if so, is it “contemptible and unfair” to try to mold your partner, as Margaret asserts, or unrealistic to assume you won’t attempt such an endeavor?
We don’t see or read Margaret’s acceptance of Henry, and we know only of it by his joyful arrival at Aunt Juley’s house in Swanage (followed by a close-up of a lovely double-pearl ring). But in what are ostensibly their first moments together as an engaged couple, Margaret and Henry repeatedly display what is either a complete mismatch of personalities, or an honest sketch of just how incongruous almost any relationship can seem. Margaret boasts to Henry that she and Helen once scaled the Apennine Mountains on their own, carrying their own luggage upon their backs — to Margaret this is an admirable tale of her independence, but Henry merely tells her he “won’t allow that” to happen again, as if it was merely a lack of male chaperoning that allowed such an endeavor to take place.
Later, they sit down to have a conversation about “business,” which goes frightfully awry for Henry, who never expected any real questioning or detail from an Edwardian woman like Margaret but is flat-out asked how much money he makes per year. The scene is played for laughs, as it should be, but Margaret’s plucky “I’ve got £600 a year!” and Henry’s look of horror that a lady has mentioned money signifies what could be a real flashpoint in their marriage. Not only does Margaret have an interest in what Henry believes is a man’s domain, she also believes she has every right to have that interest.
Meanwhile, Leonard’s financial situation has gone from precarious to abysmal since he left the Porphyrion: He’s selling his beloved books to a vendor, and at a greatly reduced price. At Jacky’s urging, he writes a letter to the Schlegels explaining his circumstances, disguising just how badly off he is, and asking Helen for some help securing a job. His new position, he explains, is at a greatly lowered salary and he’s having trouble making ends meet.
Helen, greatly upset that it was upon her direction that Leonard left the insurance company, confronts Henry about why he offered the misleading advice that the Porphyrion was about to crash. Henry offers no apology or excuse, but, even more appallingly to Helen, does not remember providing information about any insurance companies or clerks and seems fixated on the fact that Helen is so invested in Leonard’s career. Perched high above the English Channel on the cliffs of Dorset, Helen and Henry fall out in exactly the way she anticipated they might. Ultimately, the series is most effective in moments like this, when Henry offers condescending advice to Helen that he “not take that sentimental attitude about the poor,” but also rightly points out that she treats Leonard less like a person and more like a project.
She then flounces off in a fit of anger and hostility, while Henry easily slides into another concern over whether he and Margaret might run off to see Howards End since his tenant has vacated it. But again Howards End is lost to Margaret — despite the fact that Charles, the rudest prick of a human, calls it “a measly little place … [he] wouldn’t touch with tongs,” he still doesn’t want Margaret anywhere near it —- when Henry admits that living only 15 minutes from his own son wouldn’t please him. Instead, after their marriage they’ll move to the estate in Shropshire.
First they have Evie’s wedding to attend to, where Margaret is yet again treated to a miniature battle of the wills when she would rather go walking than freshen up on her arrival. Again, it’s so subtle and small that all the intricacy and nuance of E.M. Forster’s writing comes through Kenneth Lonergan’s script, leaving it difficult for the audience to choose a side in their relationship foibles — or even to feel as if a side must be chosen.
Leonard, after great urging by Jacky, writes another letter to Helen and this time explains that he has now lost his new job in a “first hired, first fired” scenario. Jacky believes the Schlegels owe Leonard some assistance. Leonard would simply like to melt into the floorboards. And Helen is enraged.
She drags Jacky and Leonard onto a train bound for Shropshire — which, bear in mind, is a solid two-hour ride from London — and Evie’s wedding. The plan is to confront Henry Wilcox and force him to right his wrong by providing Leonard with a new job on the spot.
The result is the climax of the series so far, with Margaret essentially siding with Henry against Helen, who has rather incautiously showed up at a formal wedding with uninvited guests, crashed the party, and begun screaming at one of the hosts about an error in judgment whose fault truly belongs to no one. Yes, Henry offered some wisdom, but he did not force the advice on Leonard. And Helen acted out of only good instincts and on what she thought was good information. But the Schlegels’ question from the second episode about how one can best help a poor friend is now more debated than ever. Helen’s meddling has only hurt Leonard’s economic standing, but was she simply to avoid action altogether?
Attention is diverted from Leonard when Margaret and Henry encounter a rather sozzled Jacky, who’s been guzzling down wedding Champagne on a very empty stomach, and who recognizes Henry and apparently knows him well enough to call him by a nickname. Jacky, we find out, was once Henry’s mistress, a fact that Margaret forces out of him after he calls off their engagement and storms away. And so, we learn the devoted, robotic Henry Wilcox once committed a sin of the flesh.
At the hotel, Leonard and Helen have gathered around the table to talk through the day’s mishaps. Helen begins by asking about his marriage to Jacky, and then for the first time really asks Leonard about who he is, what he wants, and where he’s from. She follows her sister’s earlier edict (which is also Howards End’s most enduring line) to “only connect.” But Leonard’s responses — that he now simply wants a little money so he can “settle down,” and that he’s done with all the tumult of a life of the mind — fill Helen with more of her earlier fury. “We are all in the mist,” she says, “and men like Mr. Wilcox are even more in the mist,” she proclaims before denouncing as unreal the type of capitalistic, hierarchical, rigid system that Mr. Wilcox supposedly subscribes to as unreal. The two of them close the shutters, and we’re left to wonder what else goes on between them in that hotel room.