Spoiler warning: E.M. Forster published Howards End before the sinking of the Titanic, but if you want to avoid spoiling plot developments ahead of Sunday night's premiere, stop reading now.
It's the time of year, and type of weather, that begs for lazy nights spent in front of a roaring fire — okay, fine, a hot water bottle — with a juicy period drama on the telly. BBC One has come through with a 4-part adaptation of E.M. Forster's 1910 novel, Howards End. But while the action may take place some 110 years in the past, the story feels oddly relevant to our current news cycle.
Scripted by newly minted Oscar-winning screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) and starring Hayley Atwell in the role that won her mentor, Emma Thompson, her own little gold man, the miniseries has all the hallmarks of a good period piece: elegant direction by Hettie Macdonald, star-making performances, the right balance of poignancy and wit. And the visuals! If you make it to the closing credits without trawling Etsy for voluminous red knit tams or wondering which Farrow & Ball shade is the best match for the Schlegels' luscious teal walls, you're made of stronger stock than I am.
What's more remarkable (arguably) than coral wallpaper, however, is how this Edwardian drama's take on privilege is so on the money for what's happening in the world right now: Brexit, Trump, problematic white feminism, the whole lot.
This boils down to a story about class, represented by three groups. The Wilcoxes, headed by Matthew Macfadyen's patronising patriarch Henry, are the wealthiest of the bunch. The most repellant literary romantic lead since Jane Eyre's Edward Rochester — reader, I don't know why she married him — Henry Wilcox is an anti-Europe, anti-suffragette bore with dodgy colonialist ties, a smug insistence on self-sufficiency, and a Mike Pence-like piety towards his ailing wife, Ruth (Julia Ormond). The odds of a modern-day Wilcox bankrolling the Leave campaign are so good, William Hill wouldn't go near it. And who is his son Charles but an entitled placeholder for Donald Trump, Jr.?
At the opposite end of the social spectrum is working-class clerk Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), who has big ideas but really just wants to make an honest wage. His wife Jacky, a former sex worker, is often portrayed as garish and crass but gets a more sympathetic and nuanced treatment here. She's also played by a black actress (Rosalind Eleazar), a detail that adds complexity to the Basts' social standing circa 1907 despite never being mentioned in the dialogue.
And in the middle we have the Schlegels, a trio of independent, intellectual, and intensely eccentric half-German siblings: Margaret (Atwell), Helen (Philippa Coulthard), and brother Tibby (the scene-stealing Alex Lawther). They're rich, but not Wilcox rich, which means they only have one luxurious home, not three. They're progressive and political, but also problematic. Tibby is quite happy to settle into the role of a pampered snob who moans about the treatment of African workers; Helen's high horse grows a few centimetres each day; and Margaret seems so bored by her own liberal lifestyle that she finds conservative declarations — including Mrs. Wilcox's comment that she's happy not to have the right to vote — refreshingly frank.
Speaking at a London screening last week, Atwell admitted that her character is "contradictory and contrary". It's frustrating to see this strong woman fall deeper under Henry's spell, barely challenging him when he brazenly changes her food order (gah!) or makes a major decision without her input. If he gave a speech denouncing women who file sexual harassment complaints as uptight crybabies, she'd probably praise him for his forthrightness and ask him to pass the salt.
But it's how Margaret and Helen treat the Basts that best illustrates just what people mean when they talk about well-intentioned but tone-deaf and self-absorbed white feminism. They invite them to tea, then jokingly accuse them of theft and domestic abuse in the next breath; you'd think they'd met Leonard at the police station, not the symphony. Despite their pledges not to treat Leonard as a "social experiment", they certainly don't treat him as an equal. His poverty is a problem for them to solve; Helen's suggestion that they raise money towards his summer holidays is so out of touch, it's almost laughable. When Henry offers a hot tip that might benefit Leonard's finances, the sisters act offended when the poor man hesitates to act on it.
"So often I feel we live chattering away at the edge of a great abyss," Margaret notes in an early scene. "I don't want to close my eyes to it, or comfortably pretend it isn’t there, but I don’t want to live in it."
So she doesn't. Meanwhile, Helen's heart bleeds more and more for Leonard's plight. She uses her privilege to challenge Henry and make scenes, but her interference seems to do more harm than good. She's so naive about how the world works that she has the nerve to tell a penniless Leonard that he doesn't need money. Oh, honey. Didn't those fancy books have anything on intersectionality, or was the suffrage movement as woke as it got in Edwardian Britain?
But far be it from us to judge two sheltered sisters living a century ago. What Forster, Macdonald, and Lonergan have given us is a nuanced portrait of women who are independent and empowered but also imperfect, occasionally hypocritical, often wrong, and really just making it up as they go along — something most modern women can no doubt understand.
As for Henry Wilcox, to whom we're meant to extend a smidge of sympathy? Still trash.
Howards End premieres this Sunday at 9pm on BBC One.