“Howards End demonstrates how a period drama can revisit a classic work while enhancing the original vision for modern audiences.”
Title: Howards End
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1 (TV Mini-Series)
Director: Hettie Macdonald 👩🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Original novel by E.M. Forster 👨🏼🇬🇧🌈, TV scripts by Kenneth Lonergan 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Despite being written by a man, E.M. Forster’s famed novel Howards End can be read as a feminist story—progressive for its time of publication in 1910. At the heart of the narrative are two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegal, who are broad-minded, highly educated, and outspoken about their beliefs. Their liberal values become tested after meeting the nouveau-riche Wilcoxes, led by the family’s patriarch, Henry Wilcox, a self-made capitalist who amassed his fortune through industry and investments. Meanwhile, London’s lower class is represented by Leonard Bast and the woman he lives with, Jacky, both of whom Helen takes on as her “protégés” (or more accurately as charity cases, which he later accuses her of doing).
The latest BBC production (airing on Starz in the US) endeavors to highlight the socio-economic disparity between the Schlegals, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts. Breaking the series into four episodes allows Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) to lift much of the dialogue directly from the text, without having to condense scenes as we see in the 1992 film adaptation by James Ivory. This breathing room gives Longergan the ability to, as he says, “bring out elements that are in the novel but are often passed over in these more bucolic period dramas.” The result is a mini-series that deliberately layers Forster’s Edwardian examination of class with a modern understanding of colonialism and race, making it relevant and timely for a 21st-century audience.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The intersectional lens complicates the Schlegal sisters’ characters, who otherwise remain unquestioningly sympathetic in the 1992 movie. In contrast, the BBC’s Hayley Atwell and Philippa Coulthard effortlessly embody Margaret and Helen by conveying their intelligence and beauty while also revealing their respective pragmatism and capriciousness. Their privilege as upper-middle-class white women does not go unexamined. For instance, we can infer from the way Margaret guilelessly tells Mr. Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen) how much money she has to live on that not only is the amount is more than sufficient, but that she’s also most likely never had to worry about not having enough. In addition to offering a humorous moment, his startled expression in response to her candidness serves as a reminder that others have not known such easy luxury.
Helen demonstrates a different kind of spoiled attitude. Blinded by her idealism, she fails to see how her actions adversely impact others. Thanks to her and her sister’s meddling in the lives of the Basts, the couple runs into financial suffering and becomes the wedge that drives the sisters apart. Those who have read the novel know that Helen’s impetuous decisions eventually catch up with her, and she is not immune from consequences. In the final episode, Margaret’s speech to Mr. Wilcox lays bare the double-standard of how society treats men and women when it comes to forgiving extramarital affairs and infidelity. She says to him: “You remain in society, Helen can’t. You have had only pleasure, she may die. You have the insolence to talk to me of differences, Henry?” So regardless of their class, or perhaps because of their high standing in society, the women are subject to unequal treatment based on their gender.
Faithfulness to the source material has often been trotted out as an excuse to ignore inclusive representation. Here, the added dimension of a “fallen woman” like Jacky being portrayed by black actress Rosalind Eleazar (Harlots) helps underline the story’s overarching concern with social inequality. It’s no accident that, as the camera follows Leonard (Joseph Quinn) from the Schlegal’s posh neighborhood to the more run-down side of town where he and his lover share an unheated flat, the visibility of people of color (POC) increases. By quietly drawing attention to that socioeconomic shift, the setting reveals how an imbalance of power and wealth exists along racial lines. At the height of British imperial rule, immigrants from the colonies had made their way to England’s shores. So even though the author did not specify Jacky’s race as non-white, director Hettie Macdonald’s decision to cast a woman of color contributes to the historical accuracy of the work.
Refreshingly, POC are shown to occupy all different echelons. Within the Schlegals’ own household, a dark-skinned black woman acts as their maid; a South Asian doctor is called to attend to their younger brother; and a diverse array of artists and intellectuals, seated around the dining table, accounts for Margaret’s set. It’s a reminder that, even if POC are not the intended focus of this particular work of literature, the canon should not be purely white.
Likewise, Forster’s identity as a gay man, though not publicly disclosed during his lifetime, cannot be ignored. Tibby Schlegal (Alex Lawther), the younger brother to Margaret and Helen, has been interpreted as a possible author avatar. His lack of interest in women suggests an ambiguity in sexuality and Lawther appears to knowingly play the 16-year-old as an aesthete and “effeminate man.” His preference for books, music, and domestic spaces illustrates an alternative form of masculinity that contrasts that of the business-minded Mr. Wilcox and his athletic yet physically violent son Charles (Joe Bannister). The costuming furthers Tibby’s transformation into a fashion icon. But as was the case for the author, the constraints of the time period would have likely prevented someone in Tibby’s position from coming out. His implied yet unconfirmed sexuality prevents this series from earning a higher score.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.19/5
It’s clear that this Howards End does not exist in a vacuum. Most significantly, overt references to the Wilcoxes’ Imperial and West African Rubber Company—its mining of resources and exploitation of labor—ensures that the viewer does not forget the human cost that enabled the family’s success. Again, Lonergan justifies this framing by saying that it comes straight from Forster’s text. That he and Macdonald opted not to overlook these significant details demonstrates how a period drama can revisit a classic work yet also strive to enhance the original vision.