What is there to say about a book like Howards End? It’s a classic, and there have probably been millions of pages written analyzing it. There’s not much that I could say that would add to that in any meaningful way.
Howards End is really good. It’s ridiculously good. I would recommend it to almost anyone. It centers on the Schlegel sisters, Meg and Helen, who belong to the middle class. They become involved in the world of the Wilcoxes, who are old money upper class, and Leonard Bast, who is poor. The different characters represent different facets of early 20th century England, but are also fully formed, complicated people. The book works on both levels: as human drama and as social commentary on social class.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is how much compassion Forster has for the characters, while exposing their weaknesses and showing them doing selfish or hurtful things. Helen and Meg, though very different, are incredibly likeable, so having compassion for them is easy; yet, while their instinct to help Leonard Bast is charitable, it is shown to have selfish, ego-driven motivations - especially during a scene at a dinner party where they discuss ‘how to help the poor’ using Leonard as an example. Leonard himself is more pitiable than likeable, but Forster shows us enough of his past life and his inner thoughts that he is not simply a representation of ‘lower class,’ but a sympathetic human being. Henry, the Wilcox patriarch, is selfish and sometimes controlling, almost boorish, but Forster shows us his vulnerability more than once.
Then there’s Ruth Wilcox, whose actions before her death become the catalyst for much of the plot. Her final wishes regarding Howards End, her family’s home, are seen by her family as not indicative of who she really was, and they suspect Meg of being a scheming interloper, never understanding their mother/wife and her true nature. Her presence haunts the entire book, an enigma that illuminates the other characters without revealing much about herself.