Howards End – Chapters 1-4

Summary

Young, pretty Helen Schlegel has left her London
home to visit the Wilcox family estate,
Howards End. (Helen and her sister Margaret met
Mr. Wilcox and his wife while traveling in
Germany.) Margaret was also invited to Howards End,
but stayed home to care for their 16-year-old
brother Tibby, who has hay fever. From Howards
End, Helen sends Margaret several letters describing
the beautiful estate and the energetic, materialistic
Wilcoxes. Her last letter sends a shock through
Margaret when she reads it: Helen has fallen in love
with Paul, the youngest Wilcox son.

Margaret reads the letter to Aunt Juley, who has
come to help care for Tibby. Aunt Juley is
scandalized and thinks that the engagement will
likely have to be broken off. She convinces Margaret
to let her go to Howards End to look into
matters. Margaret takes her to the train station and
sees her on her way; however, when she returns home,
there is a telegram from Helen informing her that the
love affair is over, and asking her not to tell
anyone what has happened.

As she travels to Howards End, Aunt Juley thinks
about her peculiar nieces, who value art, idealism,
and human relationships above all things. The
children of her sister Emily and a German professor
who moved to England, Margaret and Helen have lived alone
since their parents died, but their house is
constantly filled with writers, artists, thinkers,
and friends. The girls are interested in
forward-looking causes such as womens suffrage and
socialism. Despite their connection to
Germany and the increasing tension between
English Imperial powers and German Imperial powers,
Aunt Juley still thinks of the Schlegels as “English
through and through.”

After her train arrives, Aunt Juley meets Charles
Wilcox, Pauls older brother. Mistaking him for
Paul, Aunt Juley asks him about the engagement; this
is the first Charles has heard of any engagement.
Furious, he announces that Paul does not have any
money, cannot marry, and must go to Nigeria to make
his fortune. As Charles drives Aunt Juley to Howards
End, they argue the entire way about whether the
Schlegels are good enough for the Wilcoxes and vice
versa. At Howards End, Charles confronts Paul, but
the ethereal Mrs. Wilcox ends the dispute. Helen
returns home to London with Aunt Juley. Margaret and
Helen discuss what has happened–Helen and Paul
simply kissed, impetuously, one night, after Helen
had come to love the Wilcox family–and the
intensity of human emotions in general. Aunt Juley
selectively remembers her role in the incident, so
that in later years she thinks that the Wilcox affair
was the one time she really was able to help her
sisters children.

Commentary

The first four chapters of Howards End,
dealing with Helen Schlegels aborted romance
with Paul Wilcox, are mainly devoted to
introducing the two families around whose lives the
novel is centered, and to giving the reader some idea
of their moral, intellectual, and national
identities. The Schlegels, represented by
Margaret and Helen (and, to a lesser extent,
Tibby and Aunt Juley), are intellectual,
idealistic, somewhat flighty, romantic, and
impractical, dedicated to “personal relations” above
all things. The Wilcoxes, on the other hand, are
hard-nosed, pragmatic, materialistic, and patriotic.

The only thing connecting the two families is money:
They are both quite well-off, and represent two
different facets of the English upper class (or
upper-middle class) at the time in which the novel is
set. The Schlegels represent culture, education, and
a kind of idealism that Forster implies can only be
obtained when one does not have to worry about money.
The Wilcoxes represent the work ethic, materialism,
imperialism (Paul is going to the British colony in
Nigeria), conventionalism, and form. Not
surprisingly, the Wilcoxes are often characterized as
“solid English,” and exhibit the emotional restraint
and repressive conformity Forster considered typical
in the England of his time. The Schlegels, coming
from an English mother and a German father, are more
cosmopolitan and far less conventional. In the
pre-World War I years in which the
novel is set, the conflict between England and Germany is just
beginning to escalate into prejudice and hatred. The
Schlegels face some unpleasantness about their German
background, especially from people such as the Wilcoxes;
but they represent an older form of German
nationalism held over from the time of Kant and
Goethe.
Symbolically, then, the attraction between Helen and
Paul, between a Schlegel and a Wilcox, has the
potential to connect the two aspects of the upper
class, marrying the Schlegel intellectualism and
idealism to the pragmatism and focus of the Wilcoxes.
But the relationship falls apart before it can even
begin; Helen leaves Howards End, and Forster makes it
clear that the gulf separating his two symbolic
archetypes is a very wide one indeed.