“You talk about the man as if he is an exhibition at the circus,” snapped Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen) about the Schlegel sisters’ attitude to poor Leonard Bast in episode three. And he certainly had a point.
Helen Schlegel’s fateful obsession with the impecunious clerk showed no sign of waning tonight. Unfortunately this was happening just as sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell) fell into the arms of Henry to the great disgust of the other Wilcoxes, appalled at her family’s “artistic beastliness” (what a phrase) and what they see as the sisters’ designs on Howards End and the Wilcox fortune.
That’s the thing about this brilliant book. It’s a talky story, where people exchange ideas and multiple perspectives are given. And while the evils of class discrimination and privilege are given no quarter, there are no definitive answers. What we get is a working through of ideas, an airing. As E M Forster (and Margaret) maintain in their one, abiding principle, the only answer to life’s troubles is to “connect” with your fellow human beings.
So when Wilcox berated the Schlegels for “their sentimental attitude towards the poor” he had a point, especially when we have seen the net effect of Helen’s meddling crusade.
Because while the progressive Schlegels mean well, it’s perhaps their execution which is at fault, especially when Henry has given poor Bast duff insider financial information that has seen him give up his steady job at the Porphyrion insurance company.
Margaret’s decision to marry Henry is a flawed one, too, but it comes with the best of intentions. She realises that her guaranteed income of £600 a year shouldn’t make her “sneer” at people who provide the money she takes for granted.
And Bast, poor Leonard Bast, he doesn’t have many options when it comes to seeking his heart’s desire. He just wants money, explaining at the close of the episode that, in the final analysis, it’s the only thing that matters when you have nothing. We saw him selling his books, and the message that ideas and reading is a luxury only for those who know they can fill their bellies was well made.
This intellectual to-ing and fro-ing, the calibration of thinking and argument, is why the book and this excellent adaptation is so enjoyable. And when dramatic thing happen, they really resonate.
Episode three’s big event was Helen’s decision to bring Bast and his wife Jacky to the Evie Wilcox wedding in Shropshire. The embarrassing faux pas would have passed positively in the end, if Wilcox had not recognised Mrs Bast as his former mistress in a rather Hardyesque twist of fate.
So Wilcox, the man who was prepared to employ Leonard to please Margaret, instead turned his back on them all and called off the engagement. Oh dear.
“I have lived a man’s life,” he explained (you can say that again) leaving the Basts penniless and facing destitution.
It was bleak, yes, but still beautiful to watch; the scene when Margaret finally goes to Howards End, was particularly scenic, as she walked up the drive in the rain, caressing the plants and herbs, filled with joy and a sense of possibility.
If only we could say the same about poor old Leonard.
The concluding episode of Howards End airs on Sunday December 3 on BBC1 at 9pm