From the very beginning, it is evident that Edward Morgan Forster’s Howards End is a commentary on class and the reconciliation of the social class structures in England during the turn-of-the-century. However, it wasn’t until the opening of chapter six that the point was truly emphasized. The chapter began with, “We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk” (Forester, 49). The mere notion that the novel is to be unconcerned for the poor is ironic as it draws so much attention to their class. In this novel, the upper classes are losing their titles of ‘noble lord of the manor’, the middle classes are on the rise, and the members of the poorest class are no longer invisible. In Howards End, Forster comments on the illusion of people being able to move between social classes by attaining intellectual class. He does so through the use of three different families that are all a part of each of the three social classes. There are the Schlegels that exist in the upper-middle class. They are the sympathetic family that serves as the bridge to the upper class. The upper class family is the Wilcoxes who are. Leonard Bast and his wife portray the lowest of the middle class. They seem to be only a mere tragedy away from fading away into the fields.
Mr. Bast is doing what the lower ranks in Edwardian England was told to do to improve themselves; read, take in public lectures and concerts, visit museums, go for walks in the country. He tries to engage in converation with the Schlegel sisters as a part of this “improvement” but is less than successful. He is prevented from having a meaningful connection with the women due to his view of culture, which isn’t shared with the women. Despite him following the advice to “improve” himself, the Schlegels still view him as an imitator of their own class. “His brain is filled with the husks of books, culture – horrible; we want to show him how to wash out his brain, and go to the real thing” (Forster, 155). This concept can be seen again with Margaret when she states, “…I don’t believe in suiting my conversation to my company. One can doubtless hit upon some medium of exchange that seems to do well enough, but it’s no more like the real thing than money is like food. There’s no nourishment in it. You pass it to the lower classes, and they pass it back to you, and this you call ‘social intercourse’ or ‘mutual endeavour,’ when it’s mutual priggishness if it’s anything” (Forster, 165).Despite the women’s reluctance to accept Leonard into their circle, they still find themselves drawn to something natural within him. As much as they distaste the lack of his education, they applaud his effort to experience new things. So much so that his spontaneous walk out of London earns their respect. Leonard is conscious of the gap that lies between the Schlegels and himself. So much so that he questions himself and his ability to ever catch up with the Schlegels. He asks himself, “With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women, who had been reading steadily from childhood?” (Forster, 42-43). In Margaret’s opinion, culture has caused Leonard to lose sight of the “real thing.” He strives to obtain culture, and he hopes to come upon it abruptly., while Leonard views art and literature as a means to broaden his knowledge. Yet, during moments of pessimism, it’s very easy to detect Leonard’s self doubt. “Oh, it was no good, this continual aspiration. Some are born cultured; the rest had better go in for whatever comes easy” (Forster, 59).
While Leonard struggles with culture, the Wilcox family is unrefined and lacks culture as well. They care little for music and despite all that they lack; they have successfully climbed to the top of the social pyramid. Unlike Leonard’s intellectual approach, they did so via industry. It is stated that, “Mrs. Wilcox had no idea; she paid little attention to grounds. She was not intellectual, nor even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she should give the idea of greatness” (Forster, 82). Her German cousin even goes so far as to describe her as “not a lady.” She too is viewed as out of place to the Schlegel sisters. She didn’t have the intellectual capacity to contribute their conversations. Mrs. Wilcox’s death represents the sudden passing of the ‘old order’.
The ending of the novel leaves readers wondering, “Who will inherit Howards End?” Which can be further interpreted as “Who will inherit England?” With the social class system in a state of disarray, which class will rise to the top of the social food chain? Which, in itself, emphasizes the importance of social class in England during the turn-of-the-century.