The Schlegels frequently encounter the Wilcoxes. The youngest, Helen, is for a short period intensely attracted to the younger Wilcox brother, Paul; each rejects the other for his or her own reasons. The eldest, Margaret, becomes friends with Paul's mother, Ruth Wilcox. Ruth's most prized personal possession is her family house at Howards End. She wishes that Margaret could live there, as she feels that it might be in good hands with her. Ruth's own husband and children do not value the house and its rich history, because such abstractions, while being very dear to Margaret, are lost to them. As Ruth is terminally ill, and Margaret and her family are about to be evicted from their London home by a developer, Ruth bequeaths the cottage to Margaret in a handwritten note delivered to her husband from the nursing home where she has died, causing great consternation among the Wilcoxes. Mrs Wilcox's widowed husband, Henry, and his children burn the note without telling Margaret about her inheritance. However, over the course of several years, Margaret becomes friends with Henry Wilcox and eventually marries him. The more free-spirited Margaret tries to get Henry to open up more, to little effect. Henry's elder son Charles and his wife try to keep Margaret from taking possession of Howards End.
Gradually, Margaret becomes aware of Henry's dismissive attitude towards the lower classes. On Henry's advice, Helen tells Leonard Bast to quit his respectable job as a clerk at an insurance company, because the company stands outside a protective group of companies and thus is vulnerable to failure. A few weeks later, Henry carelessly reverses his opinion, having entirely forgotten about Bast, but it is too late, and Bast has lost his tenuous hold on financial solvency. Bast lives with a troubled, "fallen" woman for whom he feels responsible and whom he eventually marries. Helen continues to try to help young Leonard Bast (perhaps in part out of guilt about having intervened in his life to begin with, as Leonard had not wanted it and Henry had explicitly stated beforehand that he advised no one) but it all goes terribly wrong; because of Bast's wife's connection with Henry, Henry will not countenance helping them. It is later revealed that 10 years previously, as a teenager, she had been Henry's mistress in Cyprus, but he had then carelessly abandoned her, an expatriate English girl on foreign soil with no way to return home. Margaret confronts Henry about his ill-treatment, and he is ashamed of the affair but unrepentant about his harsh treatment of her. Because of Margaret's impending marriage into the Wilcoxes and situations such as these, the Schlegel sisters drift apart somewhat. In a moment of pity for the poor, doomed Bast, Helen has an affair with him. Finding herself pregnant, she leaves England to travel through Germany to conceal her condition, but eventually returns to England when she receives news of her Aunt Juley's illness. She refuses a face-to-face meeting with Margaret in an effort to hide her pregnancy but is fooled by Margaret – acting on the advice of Henry – into a meeting at Howards End. Henry and Margaret plan an intervention with a doctor, thinking Helen's evasive behavior is a sign of mental illness. When they come upon Helen at Howards End, they also discover the pregnancy. Margaret tries in vain to convince Henry that if he can countenance his own affair, he should forgive Helen hers. Mr. Bast arrives having been tormented by the affair wishing to speak with Margaret. He is not aware of Helen's presence. Henry's son, Charles, attacks Bast for the dishonor he has brought to Helen, and accidentally kills him when striking him with the flat edge of a sword, Leonard grabs onto a bookcase, which falls on top of him, and his weak heart gives out. Charles is charged with manslaughter and sent to jail for three years.
Read alsoA Passage to India
A novel by English author E. M. Forster set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s. It was selected as one of the 100 great works of 20th century English literature by the Modern Library.