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Howards End is a strangely timely adaptation of E.M. Forster’s “picture of liberal guilt”

The Starz miniseries dissects its characters with beautiful and bloodless precision.

Matthew Macfadyen, Philippa Coulthard, and Hayley Atwell in Howards End Starz
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Howards End, the BBC miniseries now airing on Starz and based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, is a period piece, and happy to be so. It features Hayley Atwell in a variety of era-appropriate hats and fetching bohemian scarves; lots of long, luxurious camera pans across English country houses; and much fretting over that newfangled invention the automobile.

But for all that, there are moments of Howards End that feel so screamingly contemporary, so cringe-inducingly relevant, that you may feel the urge to flinch away from your screen.

Howards End is, Daniel Born once wrote, “the most comprehensive picture of liberal guilt in this century.” And in our current era of weekly think pieces on the voters of “Trump country,” their mysterious ways, and how liberal cosmopolitanism has failed them, Howards End will have you wincing in recognition.

The conflict of Howards End would feel right at home in a think piece about coastal elites

Hayley Atwell as Margaret in Howards End
Such an elitist.

Howards End is one of those novels where different classes are represented by different families, and the marriage that unites the families also symbolically unites the classes. (See also North and South.) In this case, the central families are the Schlegels — half-German and half-English, bohemian, and carelessly cosmopolitan — and the Wilcoxes: thoroughly English, bourgeois, and casually imperialist. Both are wealthy.

When Schlegels and Wilcoxes meet, each family finds the other alienating and titillating in equal measure. For the staid Wilcoxes, watching the young and pretty Schlegel sisters fend for themselves as they go through life is exciting and appalling at once. And for the Schlegels, there is a masochistic thrill in having the Wilcoxes baldly dismiss their most deeply held ideals — about the equality of women and the classes — as “bosh.”

“When I said I believed in the equality of the sexes,” breathlessly recounts younger sister Helen (Philippa Coulthard, all giant eyes and windswept hair) of her first meeting with Mr. Wilcox, “he gave me such a sitting-down as I have never had! And like all really strong people, he did it without hurting me.”

“Sometimes I feel that we are swathed in cant, and it’s good for us to be stripped of it,” says older sister Margaret (Atwell, perfectly cast, with intelligence infusing her every move). “Sometimes I long for someone dominating to tell me that my ideals are sheltered and academic, that equality is bosh.”

You can just imagine the erotic glee with which the Schlegel sisters would face the New York Times op-ed section every week if they lived in 2018. “Oh, baby, yes, tell me more about how I need to escape my liberal bubble.”

If I just made Howards End sound sexy, I apologize. It is not.

Matthew Macfadyen and Hayley Atwell in Howards End
See how they’re awkwardly crammed into the corner so you feel tense looking at them? The whole show is like that.

For all the sadomasochism dripping through the dialogue, this miniseries, like Forster’s novel, is utterly devoid of sex. Howards End famously features one of the driest and most unconvincing love stories of any of the marriage novels, a romance that makes Little Women’s Jo and Professor Bhaer look star-crossed.

Over the course of the series, Margaret Schlegel — wise, brilliant, and bright-eyed Margaret — decides to marry sad, closed-minded, insipid Mr. Wilcox, and she doesn’t even have the excuse of an overwhelming physical attraction to push her into it. Instead, she’s drawn to him because she wants to connect their two classes. It’s hypocritical, she believes, for independently wealthy cosmopolitans to sneer at the working capitalists who power the economy (sure), and so the solution is for her to marry a man who patronizes and restricts her, with whom she has almost nothing in common (huh?).

The new miniseries attempts to sex up their connection a little by casting former Mr. Darcy Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Wilcox, and adding a few scenes in which the banter between Margaret and Wilcox takes on a teasing battle-of-the-sexes rhythm. But there is no working around the fact that Margaret and Wilcox are fundamentally mismatched. It’s baked into their relationship from the beginning, and intentionally so on Forster’s part.

“Idea for another novel shaping,” Forster wrote in 1908. (This sketch appears in David Lodge’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Howards End.) In a few sentences, he sketches out Margaret (M.) and Mr. Wilcox (W.) and the general shape of their disagreements, and then concludes, “M. because she understands and is great, marries him. The wrong thing to do. He, because he is little, cannot bear to be understood, and goes to the bad.”

Howards End, both book and miniseries, is fundamentally convinced that Margaret is great and understanding and Mr. Wilcox is bad and little, and it is the strangest thing to watch the pair decide to get married anyway, and even eventually transcend their difficulties, moving past the point of the story at which the marriage was “the wrong thing to do” and creating a redemptive, pastoral home — albeit one in which the balance of power is entirely on Margaret’s side.

But while the love story is confusing on a character level, it’s useful to the whole “marriage equals the union of two classes” metaphor. Because what Howards End understands is that the philosophical differences of the liberal cosmopolitan class and conservative bourgeoisie don’t ultimately matter to the lives of the poor.

Here, the poor are represented by Leonard Bast, a young clerk who lives on the edge of destitution but longs deeply to be learned and artistic. The Schlegels want to help him, while the Wilcoxes ignore him until they believe he has interfered with their lives, but both families together end up destroying him, well-intentioned liberals and bootstrapping conservatives alike.

Margaret, in other words, is right to fear that her politics is academic cant. Liberal guilt is not baseless. But the solution in this universe is not Wilcoxian callousness. Neither class is truly able to help the poor about whom they argue so earnestly, because neither truly cares.

Howards End is beautifully produced but bloodless

Philippa Coulthard and Hayley Atwell in Howards End
Seriously, check out those dresses.

If all of this makes Howards End sound a little dry and didactic, well, it is. The miniseries has plenty of the costume and scenery porn that BBC period dramas do so well — truly, the scarves Hayley Atwell wears on this show are a marvel — but it’s a bloodless show, all theory and no practice.

“Mr. W. is much concerned, and slightly titillated,” Margaret says halfway through the second episode, after impressing Wilcox once again with her independent nature. “I thought him rather splendid.”

“Only because you dissect him,” Helen returns.

“We both do,” Margaret says matter-of-factly. “We’re always dissecting people.”

Dissecting people — and classes, and ideas — is all that Howards End is interested in. It does so beautifully, with intellectual precision and an able and charismatic cast, but also with a clinical, not-quite-ironic distance. It’s an easy story to enjoy and admire, and a very difficult story to love wholeheartedly.