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.


42 thoughts on “The Unexpected Villains of Howards End

  1. Not sure I’ve ever seen that movie. As you describe it, and especially your conclusion, I was reminded of Temple Grandin, the inventor on the spectrum who invented stress-free chutes for livestock to go down that leads to the knacker. Peter Frankis commented the other day about how soundtrack music similarly leads us down the chute to the feeling they want us to have. Thoughtful essay and it makes me determined to see Howard’s End (again?)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. SB, Tubularsock was enthralled by your traipsing through the ” relentless downward spiral” of this comedy of the depressing.

    Tubularsock is glad to say that missing this film experience will be a pleasant event.

    Ta-ta …………

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Tubular. Nice to “see” you! Well, I didn’t want to give the wrong impression that even though I found it difficult to admire many of the characters that the movie wasn’t worth watching, because it was. But I know you don’t have time for movies anyway, lol. Thanks for dropping by.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Well Stacey, Tubularsock does have to admit that it really isn’t “time” to watch movies it is attention span on Tubularsock’s part. It is rather short.

        However, Tubularsock was roped into two films recently that you, I’m sure would be well aware of but they were new to Tubularsock. Both came out in 2020.

        Final Account and The Collini Case.

        Both held Tubularsock’s attention and The Collini Case Tubularsock had to see a second time!

        They were not exactly comedies.

        Keep up the good work. And even though Tubularsock isn’t a huge fan of most movie fare your posts seem to always be more fun and informative than most films!


        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Tubuluar. I appreciate it!
        While I do like being enlightened by documentaries and more serious films now and again, my go-to is entertainment, so I am a sucker for lighter fare. I figure it’s a better way to self-medicate than drinking or heroin, you know?
        At any rate, I looked up both of those movies, and just reading about how some of the interviewees in The Final Account are still in denial about the Holocaust and are proud to have served “the Fatherland” made me wonder if they were just being belligerent and would never admit to any wrongdoing or if they actually really believe they did nothing wrong. It was a pretty scary thought, but similar to those who stormed the Capitol here who still think they did nothing wrong.
        Then the Collini Case reminded me of the recent trial of Murdaugh here, as a powerful man accused of murder. Well, Murdaugh was convicted of murder. I’m not 100% sure he pulled the trigger, but looking back at OTHER things this guy Murdaugh did in his life, it’s a clear-cut case of karma coming back to deck him in the face.
        Far from comedies, indeed!
        Definitely a LOT more depressing than Howards End, Tubular! lol


  3. I did not see this one Stacey, but it really sounds intriguing. I agree sometimes the most frightening villains are the ones who don’t show their hands at all. Evil comes in all forms, but some is way more recognizable than others. Sometimes, you don’t even see it coming. Interested to see this one in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Bruce. I think one has to be in a “lazy afternoon and a beer or glass of wine” mood for this one–and I’m not sure most men would get into it. But it was beautifully done. I love the way you phrase that: some evil is more recognizable than others. That word feels a little strong for the kind of “evil” they displayed…but in the end it was a lesser form of it, I guess, represented by the endless situation in our world of haves and have nots.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, I love that film, Stacey. So beautiful, so seductive,… but razor sharp. It grabs you by the neck and then drowns you in its complexity, and its message. A very accomplished adaptation of E.M Forster’s novel. Beautifully shot, and played by all. I am biased, of course and, like most Romantic English males of my age, hopelessly in love with Helena Bonham Carter. Thank you for posting this, such a pleasure to read. By the way, have you seen Howard’s End? That’s another EM Forster adaptation of around the same time, by Merchant Ivory, I could watch over and over. (And all right, Helena Bonham Carter is in that one as well)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Michael, I believe I had to read Room with a View in high school or college. Sorry I said “had to”, lol, but back then that wasn’t something I would have chosen on my own. I could have sworn that was Woolf. I’ve forgotten the premise, too.
        You know, I should have also mentioned how beautiful Howards End was, because it really, really was. Despite the weird feelings I started developing about halfway through the movie that I wasn’t sure I liked any of the characters. I remember seeing this decades ago, though, and even I had a girl crush on Helen Bonham, lol, so I completely understand where you’re coming from! Why can’t I have eyebrows like that?!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Since we’re talking Oscars at the moment, I’ll throw in the fact that HOWARD’S END won three – Best Actress to Emma Thompson – Best Art Direction – and Best Screen Play (based on Material Previously Produced or Published). Unfortunately (well, not if you’re a Clint fan) it missed out on the Oscar for Best Picture, which went that year to Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know Unforgiven won over Howards End. Hmm. Not sure how I feel about that! And I’m a HUGE fan of Unforgiven. Love it so much. Howards End was so sprawling and, ultimately, beautiful. Maybe Unforgiven won because it was a more unusual story: whores who pool their money together to buy an assassin for a revenge killing. And then the whole back story of Clint’s character who completely changes once he falls off the wagon. It was pretty unique.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As always, a great review. I remember being forced to read this at college. The tutor who ordered us to read it asked us what we expected to discover before we read it. My reply of …is it about the physical state of the tip of his penis… didn’t go down well. I enjoyed the movie more than the book.
    Hope you’re well Sel ?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lol. You did not! You did not say that, John. But if you did–props! I always wanted to be funny in school, but I was way too shy.
      I love how you were “forced” and the tutor “ordered you” to read it, like you were in a Siberian work camp, lol But for kids, it really FEELS that way, doesn’t it, with those kinds of books.
      We’re well here, sir. Thank you.
      I hope you and yours are also!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s a compelling film Stace. A period piece that speaks about the here and now as much as the past. The usual shit: rich people bully and intimidate and murder and coerce those who cross them from the wrong side of the tracks. See the ‘Allies’ invading Iraq; the US defoliating Vietnam; the City of London plundering the whole world; the lack of punishment for the bankers who lost squillions in 2008; or any assault by a policeman on a civilian. Jeez I could go on and on. Anyway I also like HBC, as well as Anthony Hopkins, who has a way of showing how Brits contain emotion that would blow the ears off other peoples’ heads!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It will never end, will it? Did evolution bake selfishness into human beings? And I’m not excusing myself either, in all the ways I’m selfish and could help more.
    I did enjoy the movie, too. It really was well done, wasn’t it?
    Oh my God, though, Anthony Hopkins. Your description of him his perfect. And then I think, yeah, that’s true, “stiff upper lip” and all that with the British, right?! Why do you guys hold it in?! Let it out, for god’s sake! It’s unhealthy! lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, really, this country was founded by Puritans, and there’s still a lot of that sentiment/attitude left, even if it’s transferred over into Evangelicals or just plain Christians. After all, what else but a repression of emotions would result in banning abortion? If people dug deep down past their self-righteousness, they would let people just live their own lives, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

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