Well, we saw it coming. Even if you haven’t read EM Forster’s Howards End, it was hard not to conclude that things were going to be pretty bleak for Leonard Bast.
The shy, awkward, bookish clerk, played so affectingly by Joseph Quinn was undone – by a bookcase of all things. It was a grim irony, worthy of arch pessimist Thomas Hardy, to have Bast killed by the thing he loved, but didn’t have the money or leisure to fully appreciate.
But there he was: horsewhipped with the flattened blade of a sword by the awful Charles Wilcox, his weak heart giving out when the furniture tumbled on him. Bast never lived to see his and Helen’s child emerge into the world.
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But the death of the clerk (below), a sacrifice almost, paved the way for the redemption of others, and the saving of Henry’s soul.
Charles (Joseph Banninster) was imprisoned for manslaughter – his father Henry refusing to pull the strings and get him off. And it was a sacrifice which softened his wife’s heart. Margaret was about to leave Henry but, discovering his moral strength, found a way of loving him again.
Matthew Macfadyen was once again brilliant at evoking Henry’s maddening complexities – a helpful and practical man of business, an emotional mess at times. The pain of shedding the prejudices of his class (and era) was written across his face with fantastic skill. I have always admired Macfadyen as an actor, but I think this is his best performance yet.
So Henry was redeemed in the end, seeing the error of his ways, and bequeathing Howards End to his wife Margaret (Hayley Atwell) – stipulating that after that it should go to his nephew, Leonard’s illegitimate son by Helen (Philippa Coulthard). The rest of the Wilcox brood were none too pleased about it, even though they knew that Margaret getting the house was the dying wish of Henry’s first wife Ruth at the story’s start.
For most of the episode, Helen – who had pledged to rescue Leonard “from the abyss” – wasn’t around, having scarpered to Europe. This meant that, for the most part, the Leonard/Helen exchanges involved him stubbornly refusing her offer of £5,000 – a bequest which would have saved him and poor Jacky, who was clearly ailing if not close to starvation.
But of course as a reading and TV experience, Forster’s final happy montage of Helen, Margaret and Henry moving gaily among the hay fields in the sunshine (beautifully recreated by director Hettie Macdonald) is a lovely one. Although if one reflects on it for any length of time, it was not an entirely satisfactory one, for a number of reasons.
Henry has put aside his Victorian era anxieties about propriety and taken on Helen’s illegitimate child. Just as he had a past he would rather forget (his affair with Jacky) so he was able to overlook Helen’s indiscretion and move towards the rest of the 20th century.
But we all know what’s coming in this violent of eras. And it was interesting to be reminded that Paul was likely to be going to war, perhaps one of the millions killed on the Western Front.
And the final thought has to be with Leonard and the over-riding realisation that this remains a world where the comfort of progressive idealism can still only be pursued if you are Henry, Margaret or Helen – moneyed and equipped with the education to pursue your concerns. Poor Leonard’s absence at the end spoke volumes.
Howards End begins on PBS Masterpiece in the US on Sunday 21st March 2021 at 9/8c.
Read on to find out more about the cast of Howards End, where BBC drama Howards End was filmed, why Matthew Macfadyen almost turned down Howards End, and why Manchester by the Sea screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan turned his hand to Howards End.