The Unexpected Villains of Howards End

I saw a movie the other day with the most disturbing villains you could imagine: the hidden, subtle, even unintentional kind.

Nobody was locked in a basement. There were no knives or guns. There was no plot to rob the bank and steal the gold. Except…maybe there was all this and more. Executed in a much more sinister manner.

How else could you explain, in 1992’s Howards End (based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel) a dying woman bequeathing her family’s home to someone who’s not much more than an acquaintance?

As summarized in IMDB: The film juxtapositions the intellectual, emotionally unhindered Schlegel sisters against the restrained, imperious Wilcox family.

Helen Schlegel, the younger of the sisters, is definitely unhindered (and thoughtless) when she absentmindedly absconds with the wrong umbrella after attending a public lecture. Leonard Bast, a low-paid insurance clerk, has to literally chase after her to get his brolly back.

I understand how he feels. Years ago when I was living in NYC, a coworker asked to borrow a token. When she never replaced it or paid me back in the following days, I was annoyed, and embarrassed that I was annoyed, but I was actually so broke that I didn’t even have an extra $5 back then.  So I could completely relate to the poor insurance clerk.

Unfortunately, after Leonard reacquires his umbrella from Helen, his life will begin a relentless downward spiral.

Long story short: Ruth Wilcox’s dying wishes are ignored by her husband Henry, along with their children. Henry’s keeping the house.

Henry falls for Margaret Schlegel and marries her, so ironically, she ends up at Howards End anyway.

Following some fallacious information from Henry, Leonard quits his stable insurance job and accepts a lower-paying position in another company where, shortly after, he’s sacked.

Jack London called those of Leonard’s status the “people of the abyss,” which reminded me of Hillary Clinton calling Trump followers a “basket of deplorables,” although Jack London was speaking from empathy, actually having lived among the poverty-stricken denizens of London’s Whitechapel.

An outraged public scene from Helen on behalf of Leonard ultimately accomplishes nothing…especially when she later gets knocked up by Leonard. Yeah, Helen cared about Leonard. Apparently…a lot.

Later when Leonard visits Howards End to see Helen, Henry’s brutish frat boy son Charles assaults him (for knocking up Helen and for being poor while he did it) and lets a bookcase flatten him, whereupon Leonard has a heart attack and dies.

Once all personalities have been revealed and motives disclosed and the consequences have unfurled, it’s obvious that a lot of people are locked in a basement, Leonard among them, and all those incapable of fighting classism, much less breaking through to something better.

In the form of intellectual and emotional snobbery, whether intentional or not, we have metaphysical knives and guns and bombs galore causing great harm to the human psyche. Even Charles’s physical assault didn’t directly kill Leonard; his endless upward trudging on a downhill escalator weakened his resolve and his immune system, aiding in his demise.

And, of course, the bank was robbed of its gold when Henry disregarded his wife’s wishes (even if Mrs. Wilcox was a villain in her own right as a deluded martyr) and kept Howards End in the family.  When he reveals this to Margaret at long last, she says nothing.

Oh, the noble restraint, to keep from commenting on Henry’s dishonesty! Because Margaret, soft spoken, reasonable and so seemingly kind, is one of the biggest villains of them all, a member of the intellectual bourgeoisie who’s used to things like this happening all the time: having a few teas with a passing acquaintance who, before she expires, bequeaths her house to her without discussing it with anyone in her family.

A year or so later, as Leonard molders in the ground, Margaret and Helen play with Helen’s baby on a blanket in the fields encompassing Howard’s End, surrounded by endless beneficence and the perpetual belief that all is right with the world, because beauty reflects beauty, and an abundance of goodness only creates more. And watching them in the wild field, crowded with flowers and golden sunshine, laughing and happy, one is easily seduced by this dream, because they look so beautiful and pure, and that’s all that we can see.