Based around the turn of the twentieth century, Howard’s End deals with the class system of England during those times and the emergence of the middle class.
The main plot revolves around the two sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel and their interaction with the very rich Wilcoxes and the poor Basts. The sisters come into contact with the Wilcoxes during a vacation abroad and are invited to visit their home in Howards End. Helen takes up this offer and the visit ends in disastrous results as Helen and Paul (Wilcoxes younger son) fall in love and get engaged under the effect of the moonlight and then go on and break it off the very next day. This causes sufficient vexation to both the families and in a way sets the premise for the strained relationship between them families for some time to come. When the Wilcoxes move to London, in close proximity to the Schlegel’s, an odd friendship develops between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox. This becomes a sore point for the Wilcox’s offsprings when Mrs. Wilcox dies and leaves Howards End to her.
Meanwhile, an accidentally stolen umbrella sets the scene for the landmark meeting between Leonard Bast and the Schlegels. Leonard , a poor clerk, engaged to be married to an older woman , aspires to be like the rich – and believes that literature is the way to it (?). Margaret and Helen move in bourgeois circles and are always on the look out for a cause to support – and Leonard makes a perfect case.
How these three families from different social strata interact and the various situations that connect them is what makes the storyline of the book. For me the main appeal of the book was the strong female characters. The Schlegel sisters though distinct different characters are both some of the early feminist characters of literature – well educated, believed in freedom of expression and in equality of both the sexes, independent and passionate about their causes. Margaret the more controlled and poised of the two is constantly challenged when she marries and has to sometimes adhere to the position defined for her by society.
Henry Wilcox presents the black to Margaret’s white, though neither of the characters are extreme. Henry’s class based prejudice , his conservative approach towards women, his different standards for men and woman form and interesting combination with his role as a man which represents and builds the modern and progressive England.
Leonard Bast is the representation of the emerging working middle class. Always anxious to rise to the circles to the rich and intellectual , he is bogged down by mundane things like the need to earn money for survival.
So why the name Howards End? I guess in one way Howards End represents the final destiny for both the sisters – both as in their final home and the place where they can belong. Howards End also represents the dissolution of the class barriers -in the end the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels and the Basts all live happily under one roof (in a way).