Howards End: Book to Screen and back again

I did this backwards of course. I recently watched the BBC’s version of Howards End starring Hayley Atwell and Matthew Whatshisname as Margaret Schlegal and Henry Wilcox. I will confess to seeing the advert on the BBC and deciding to watch purely because of Hayley Atwell. The show being a period drama was a huge added bonus. I really enjoyed the BBC show, and I bought the book on the day between watching the second and third episode of the series. Therefore I can’t really separate the book from the screen in this instance, Howards End is both.

Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegal, and Matthew MacFadyen as Henry Wilcox in the BBC Howards End 2017 (Image from BBC website)

Howards End, by E.M.Forster is an Edwardian era novel about class and hypocrisy in society. It follows the interactions between three families – the rich Wilcox’s with their traditional views, the artistic and flighty Schlegals and the impoverished Basts. When Helen visits the Wilcox’s at Howards End one summer, she starts a chain of events that lead to the unlikely friendship between her older sister Margaret and the matriarch Mrs Wilcox. Upon her death not long after, Mrs Wilcox leaves Margaret Howards End, but as Margaret had no idea, the note is scrapped and that is that. Years later, the Wilcox and Schlegal families meet again, and Margaret finds Henry Wilcox, with his certainty in traditions and expectations, fascinating. They talk of the situation of the Bast’s with him, and Mr Wilcox advises Mr Bast to clear out of his current job because of the uncertainty. Mr Wilcox is wrong, but by then it is too late, Mr Bast has cleared out at the sister advice. Margaret and Mr Wilcox get engaged, and family drama spills over into the lives of the all three families.

I have never had much of a desire to pick up a Forster novel – I’ve viewed Passage to India many times, nodded and put it back on the shelf before selecting another book. I think that I have, quite unknowingly, been missing out! Forster is witty and satirical and honest and his characters are incredibly flawed but I prefer flawed characters to unrealistic ones.

Margaret, for example, is stoically independent and acts as she sees fit rather than confining herself to a society she cares little for, but this can mean she can be impulsive and she changes her mind within the topic of a single conversation. I find her endlessly fascinating. She is loyal to a fault, and she will talk her way through a problem with tangents and then, once she has come to a conclusion will act upon it immediately and decisively. Once her decision has been made its really quite hard to change her mind. Helen is impulsive and defiant in quite a different but similar way and they can clash quite horribly. Margaret avoids confrontation, Helen seeks it. Henry is quite misogynistic and is bull-headed – Margaret learns to manage him but it highlights how the patriarchy is so ingrained that she decides – for all her forthright personality – that the best way to bring Henry to her point of view is to make him think it is his idea. It works.

There were so many things that were said that felt so frightfully modern – and at least once I flicked back to the copyright page to check when this was written and published because I just couldn’t believe it! The women are not the heroines, nor the men the heroes. They try and they fail and they are human because of it. It is a reflection of society, of class, of gender, of power and it is subverted and twisted. In the end, Margaret stands by her own morals, rather than ceding to a society that won’t accept her sister, and isolated herself from her husband without remorse because that is what she believed to be the right action, and she would never betray herself. It’s family and messy human relationships and cause and effect and blame and anger and it was a truly excellent novel.

So, you should all know how much I despise writing in books – One of the reasons I like Kindle is because I can highlight things without it affecting my pages. So it’s a big thing when I say this book had me reaching for a pencil (let’s not get too wild) and underlining passages or comments or sentences. My favourite in the whole book is:

Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead to nowhere.” It sums up travelling through life, not knowing where the future will lead but only being able to guess through the unreliable.

And now back to the TV show. I enjoyed the characters in the book, and I personally felt that Margaret and Helen and Tibby were incredibly true to character. Margaret is a bulldozer of a friend and she knocks down defences quite easily and Hayley Atwell portrayed that amazingly. Henry in the book annoyed me as much as in the show, but then he was also human and Matthew McWhathisname managed the awkward – inability to connect – side of his personality so well and the whole thing just worked. It stayed incredibly true to the book – as all good period dramas should do. There were no unnecessary sword fights or any of that nonsense. It was about real people and real emotions and it was excellently done!

I recommend both the book and the BBC TV show. I’ve even popped onto kindle to purchase a few more of Forster’s novels, so we shall see if I enjoy the

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