Howards End Makes An Important Point About Feminist Period Pieces

Photo: Courtesy of STARZ.
Trust and Billions are about to get some serious competition when it comes to Sunday night television about the trials and tribulations of the extremely wealthy and extremely powerful. The latest addition in that long legacy of luxury TV is Starz’s sumptuous drama Howards End. While the period piece, premiering Sunday, April 8, is very much exactly what you expect it to be — a gorgeous British dissection of humanity — it is also a bit of a surprise. The real trick of Howards End is forcing viewers to really grapple with how trappings like class, money, and time period can actually suffocate a person. The past wasn't a magical realm of magnificent gowns and romance, so let's not pretend it was.
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As we enter the premium cable series, it’s 1905, and and Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) is driven back home to London after a calamity of a countryside visit with the extremely rich Wilcox family. While the Schlegels clearly have money — Helen, her older sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell), and brother Tibby (The Eng Of The F***ing World’s Alex Lawther) never work a day in their lives, yet live in a sprawling townhouse — they don’t have Wilcox money. The Wilcoxes are the kind of deeply British capitalists who have such a booming “rubber business” in Africa one of the sons needs to live there full time. They’re also the kinds of capitalists who own a massive estate called Howards End. The half-German, adult orphan Schlegels, on the other hand, are the type of rich people who frequent “ghastly” restaurants, to quote Tibby, speak to those less fortunate than them, and spend most of their time either playing their single grand piano or having long-winded conversations about Ideas-With-A-Capital-I.
It’s no surprise Howards End begins with an entire crisis over Helen possibly, and abruptly, marrying into the Wilcox family. Spoiler alert, as with all British class melodramas: any possible too-fast engagement ends in disaster.
So, we return to London to hang out with Helen and Margaret, our turn-of-the-20th century proto-feminists. In the absence of the Schlegel parents, Margaret serves as the head of the household. Margaret doesn’t need a man but is still a tad obsessed with societal constrictions to the point where she “frets” over unexpected guests not getting tea or sitting in the dinning room. Helen is the impetuous and open-hearted sister who cannot help but say what she’s thinking. Helen’s free-spirited nature brings Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn) into their lives after the younger Schlegel sister accidentally stole the impoverished clerk’s umbrella. At the Schlegel townhouse, we realize Helen possesses a literal bin of umbrellas she has unwittingly pilfered.
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The question of how the wealthier members of society are allowed to be careless — from absconding with bad weather devices to ruining careers and murdering people — permeates the entire series. The Schlegel sisters belong to countless discussion groups dedicated solely to creating conversations on the difficult topics. In the first one we see, at a “luncheon party,” Margaret and her friends debate the Germans’ appreciation for beauty, supposed British exceptionalism, and something involving “overhanging warehouses.” A later discussion asks how one should leave their money, as if everyone has money to leave after their demise, and yet another one that arises with Wilcox patriarch Henry (Matthew Macfadyen) questioning “how” the poor “should” be helped.
The interesting thing about all of these questions, especially the latter, is how privileged Margaret and Helen even are to be able to ask them at all. Because they’re wealthy, white women in 1905-ish Britain, they can attempt to prescribe fix-alls for those less fortunate until the cows come home without having to ask an actual poor person their opinion. The sisters even have access to one such individual, and they do inquire as to where his beliefs on the subject fall. Instead, Margaret and Helen knowingly treat Leonard like a social experiment.
Similarly, Tibby, a rich young man, announces, without anyone asking, suffrage is “futile.”
It’s very obvious the inhabitants of Howards End who aren’t lily white and monied do not have the same freedoms. The Schlegels employ a Black maid named Annie (Donna Banya) who seems absolutely frazzled and near-tears at all times. Leonard constantly feels like a zoo animal or charity case under the “dissecting” gaze of the Schlegal sisters — their word, not mine. Leonard’s beleaguered, ill wife Jacky Bast (Rosalind Eleazar) is far too busy coughing to consider how early 20th century feminism and liberal economics can or should play a part in her crumbling life. When you’re worried about dying from starvation, it’s difficult to interrogate the high-wire of political philosophy.
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Howards End plays its most vital card when the constraints of time and place finally effect both Margaret and Helen. Not to spoil anything, although the drama is based on a 118-year-old book, which was made into a 26-year-old film, but these two free-spirited sisters are also forced to make difficult decisions to survive in their world of pre-WWI England. It’s impossible to host boisterous salons forever, especially when you need to find a new place to live.
And, if the Starz series succeeds in nothing else, Howards End gives us the delightful, neurotic, meddlesome wonder that is Alex Lawther’s Tibby. For that, I am thankful.
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