One’s End is Another’s Beginning: Closely Reading HOWARDS END
22 July 2012
In 1992, the Merchant and Ivory team brought another E. M. Forster novel to the silver screen, Howards End. And, in doing what they do best, Merchant and Ivory used their visual prowess and aesthetic brilliance to illustrate a film as subtly complex as the novel from which it derives.
To sum it up, there is no simple way to sum up Howards End. The film, like the novel it was adapted from, is an intricate web of characters and secrets. Nevertheless, at its core Howards End is the story of Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), later Mrs. Wilcox, and how she came to own the English country house called Howards End. Toward the beginning of the film Margaret befriends Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), a well-to-do woman whose son, Paul (Joseph Bennett), Margaret’s sister, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), was once linked romantically to. The failed romance caused a stalemate between Wilcoxs and Schlegels, yet Margaret ends all that in befriending Ruth. The two become close and Ruth begins regaling Margaret with stories of Ruth’s childhood home, Howards End. These stories come at a particularly poignant moment for Margaret, as the lease to her childhood home is about to expire and will not be renewed. Ruth’s health is poor, and shortly after an operation she becomes gravely ill. Just before dying, Ruth writes out that she wishes to leave Howards End to Margaret; however, after her death, Ruth’s family, specifically her husband, Henry (Anthony Hopkins), thinks Ruth was not in her right mind when she made her decision regarding Howards End. Refusing to honor Ruth’s last wish, Henry conceals the information and, instead, helps Margaret look for new residence upon the expiration of her lease. After spending time together, Margaret and Henry fall in love, and marry soon after. Henry takes Margaret to Howards End, this being the first time she visits the home that, unbeknownst to her, is actually hers. At Howards End, Margaret’s sister, Helen, reemerges with news that a Schlegel family friend, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), whom was thought to be working for Henry, is actually unemployed and struggling. Leonard and his wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffett), are poor and starving when Helen brings them to Margaret and Henry, forcing Henry to confront his wrongdoing in firing Bast from his post. Margaret, who has evolved into the consummate peacemaker by this point, attempts to smooth everything over, and forgives her husband’s cruelty toward Bast. Helen, who fights vehemently for Bast’s well-being, falls in love with Leonard. Yet, because he is married and in love with his wife, Leonard and Helen part ways, and Helen flees England, leaving Margaret worried for her younger sister. As months pass, Margaret’s worry for Helen builds and she devises a plan to lure Helen back to England, specifically to Howards End, so the two can reconcile. Upon seeing Helen, Margaret realizes her sister has stayed away because she is pregnant with Bast’s child. Bast, having no idea about the child, travels to Howards End, when he leans Helen is back in England; however, as he enters the home, Charles (James Wilby), Henry’s son with Ruth, attacks Leonard for his affair with Helen and kills him. With Charles, Henry’s eldest son, put away in jail, Henry decides he will bestow Howards End on his new wife, Margaret, upon his death. At the very end of the film Margaret overhears gossip that she has been the rightful owner of Howards End since the former Mrs. Wilcox’s passing. She gently confronts Henry with this information, to which he replies, “My poor Ruth, during her last days, scribbled your name on a piece of paper. Knowing her not to be herself, I set it aside. I didn’t do wrong, did I?” Margaret’s answer is never captured; the credits role.
One of the most interesting characters in Howards End is Mrs. Wilcox. The reason Mrs. Wilcox is so fascinating is because she encompasses two people: Ruth and Margaret. During the first sequence in the film, as the opening credits role, the camera follows a woman in a beautiful teal dress walking amid high grass outside a country house. There is no way to know who the woman is, but certain qualities are clear. First, the woman is a groundskeeper of this home, symbolically. She walks around it alone, at night, peers in and looks about, watching the home, its surroundings, and its occupants. The audience witnesses her as a loving protector of this place. Next, the woman is elegant. Not only is she well-dressed, but she carries herself with poise and sophistication. Lastly, this woman is an outsider. Literally she is outside the house and away from the people within; she is removed from the family unit. Her position as guardian forces her into the outcasted role of loner. Even before any words are spoken, the film communicates visually who this woman is and how connected this woman is with this country home.
Eventually, the audience learns this loving groundskeeper is Mrs. Wilcox. What the audience also learns is there is not much more to Mrs. Wilcox than what was interpreted from the film’s introduction: elegant family protector and loner. Mrs. Wilcox lives for her family; they are her world, but as they are frequently off on business or travel she is often alone. It is during these outcasted hours in which Margaret meets Mrs. Wilcox and the two become friends. When Mrs. Wilcox talks to Margaret about her life and her deep connection to her childhood home, Howards End, the audience finally learns something of Ruth, the woman who became Mrs. Wilcox. Ruth is fascinating, but her stories subtly reveal the life in her years occurred prior to becoming Mrs. Wilcox. As Mrs. Wilcox, Ruth fades away; literally, Ruth dies, but Mrs. Wilcox lives on.
The audience meets Margaret prior to becoming Mrs. Wilcox, and during that time the film calls attention to Margaret’s boisterous personality and individuality. For example, the first time Mr. Leonard Bast calls upon the Schlegel household Margaret and Helen nearly talk him to death in a scene of comic relief. Margaret is social, enthusiastic, talkative, and vibrant. In fact, Margaret’s lively disposition is what inspired her to call upon Mrs. Wilcox in the first place and begin a friendship. Yet, Margaret’s effervescence fades throughout the film, after she becomes Mrs. Wilcox, and Ivory uses parallel shots and motifs to visually represent the loss of Margaret as she devolves into Mrs. Wilcox.
Just after Margaret and Henry announce their engagement they travel to Howards End to host a wedding. Before the festivities begin, the camera follows Margaret walking around the grounds of Howards End. Parallel to the opening sequence, the camera trails a well dresses woman, who is all alone, sauntering around in the grass, noting everything is in its place. Capturing Margaret in the same distinct shot as Mrs. Wilcox in the opening sequence, Ivory uses visual parallelism, solidifying Margaret is now becoming Mrs. Wilcox, the loving, protective loner.
From this point on Margaret’s identity subtly slips away. By the ending there is nothing of Margaret left, made clear by the film’s final scenes. After forgiving Henry’s arrogance and ignorance for putting her pregnant sister Helen out of Howards End, and after Charles is sent to prison for Leonard’s death, Margaret sits in on a Wilcox family meeting. As Henry tells his family he will leave Howards End to Margaret upon his death, Margaret sits in silence, crocheting a doily. First, this new Mrs. Wilcox has no voice. The once animated, occasionally loquacious matriarch of the Schlegel family is now a silenced fixture in the corner of the Wilcox family. Moreover, the doily she crochets is symbolic because during the first, and most informative, of Margaret’s conversations with Ruth, an unmissable doily rested on Ruth’s chair. The doily is connected to Mrs. Wilcox, and therefore this doily in the latter Mrs. Wilcox’s hand is a motif suggesting her transformation is complete.
Additionally, the film does not capture Mrs. Wilcox’s response to Henry’s final question in the film’s closing shot, “I didn’t do wrong, did I?” After inquiring about whom Howards End actually belonged to upon the death of the first Mrs. Wilcox, Henry admits disregarding his wife’s dying wish. The film does not need to show the second Mrs. Wilcox’s response to his question because the audience knows Mrs. Wilcox will forgive Henry. Mrs. Wilcox will not be upset or alarmed at Henry’s obvious self-motivated manipulation. Margaret would have been upset by his callous actions, but in not showing the audience the response the film silently assures viewers Margaret is gone and only Mrs. Wilcox remains.
Margaret transformation into Mrs. Wilcox is only one of many themes James Ivory explores in his adaptation of Forster’s Howards End. The subtle ways Ivory, in partnership with Ismail Merchant, uses visual parallels and motifs to highlight this transformation are quite clever, and clearly accent the Merchant and Ivory reputation for stunning, refined, and intellectual visual spectacles in their collaborated films.