Relationships In Pre World War One England In The Novel "Howards End" By ‎E. M. Forster

As humans, we gravitate towards individuals that evoke emotions, particularly feelings of love and lust. We enter these relationships for the same reason we do most things in life: because we are motivated by our needs. When we are by ourselves, we feel isolated and empty. We seek out others in order to fill our needs when we cannot fill them ourselves. These relationships often result in marriage, where two individuals become one.

The novel, “Howards End”, by ‎E. M. Forster, predominantly focuses on three main relationships. These three relationships between Ruth and Henry Wilcox, Margaret and Henry Wilcox, Jacky and Leonard Bast are a critical part of the novel based in pre World War One England. As most men in Victorian-era England, Henry Wilcox is the definition of a male at this point of history who considers women to be the inferior gender.

In the novel, he states, “Man is for war, woman for the recreation of the warrior […] She cannot win in a real battle, having no muscles, only nerves” (Forster 205). Henry’s first wife, Ruth Wilcox, embodies the perfect Victorian woman. She was initially described by Helen as “quieter than in Germany… sweeter than ever, and [Helen] never saw anything like her steady unselfishness, and the best part of it is that the others do not take advantage of her” (Forester 6).

Inferred from the novel, Mrs. Wilcox accepts too much and expects too little. Henry and Ruth’s marriage was certainly the least troubled, compared to the other relationships. Through the long years of their marriage, she always deferred to her husband’s judgment; according to Henry’s memory, “they had never disputed” (Forster 72). Ruth’s death can be observed as a representative of the dying strains of Victorian womanhood. Her death reveals the persistent expectations that English men cling to when searching for a spouse.

Henry Wilcox becomes nostalgic, remembering his wife as “unvarying virtue, that seemed to him a woman’s noblest quality as bride and mother, she had been the same, he had always trusted her. Her tenderness! Her innocence! The wonderful innocence was hers by the gift of God” (Forster 67). Ultimately, Margaret succeeds where Ruth and Jacky failed: she uses her own standards, rather than those society has allotted her, to triumph over Henry’s unfair ruling—and by extension, over the gender injustices of her time.

Unlike Ruth Wilcox’s obvious connection to the past ideals of Victorian women, Margaret is caught in a difficult struggle of self-identity between the traditional and modern values. She is not considered an ideal Victorian nor a modern New Woman. Margaret’s unique upbring played a significant role in her life. Both of her parents died when she was of young age, causing Margaret to take care of her two younger siblings, Helen and Tibby. Not having a strong mother figure is one of the most critical aspects when examining Margaret’s character.

Margaret does not want to have children of her own, but she is still a mother figure in her own right, and she works to recreate her family, including both Henry and Helen, at Howards End. When she is alone or with her sister, Margaret maintains an air of freedom and independence; however, when she is in the presence of a man who expects to lead, she seems to willingly slip into the more traditional role of womanhood. Margaret possess an uncanny ability to renounce her independence when she is in a relationship with Henry Wilcox. She chooses to become a more traditional-minded woman similar to how Mrs. Ruth Wilcox was in her relationship with Henry Wilcox, allowing Henry to lead. Unlike Mrs. Wilcox, Margaret does challenge Henry in certain situations.

For example, when Henry refuses to forgive Helen, Margaret’s sister, for her imprudent relationship with Leonard Bast, Margaret is quick to remind Henry of his own indiscretion with Jacky Bast, which is indistinguishable from Helen’s relationship. Another example of Margaret’s provocation includes her asking Henry for permission to stay at Howards End with Helen. However, even when he denies her use of the house, she rebels against him and stays there anyway. Margaret appears unwilling to accept a lesser place in society as a result of her womanhood.

Margaret possesses strength of character that allows her to mold herself into the type of woman Henry Wilcox expects without sacrificing who she is. While it seems ironic that a feminist and anti-feminist would work in a relationship, they surprisingly get along quite well. She explicitly stated that she did not love him (Forster 137), she does “like being with him. He was not a rebuke, but a stimulus, and banished morbidity. Some twenty years her senior, he preserved a gift that she supposed herself to have already lost—not youth’s creative power, but its self-confidence and optimism” (Forster 128). Their friendship adjusted into a romantic affinity.

Leonard’s marriage to Jacky is pathetic and he stays with her only out of chivalry. Although he is not anti feminist and cooks dinner for himself and Jacky, Leonard nevertheless accepts and is the victim of the sexual myth of male dominance that is concomitant with chivalry. “His has scarcely been a tragic marriage, where there is no money and no inclination to violence, tragedy cannot be generated. He could not leave his wife, and he did not want to hit her. Petulance and squalor was enough.” [111].

Leonard’s wife Jacky combines the themes of class and sex: she is oppressed by both, for she belongs to the class society calls ‘lower’ and the sex it considers inferior. She functions essentially as a connection. Henry Wilcox is to Jacky as Helen is to Leonard. She is like a lower-class woman used by an upper-middle-class man. Jacky has few options open to her, and her only chance is to latch on to a lower-middle class man, resulting in a sad situation for all concerned. Jacky’s belief that marriage will make everything all right, stresses the fact that for the poor, marriage is an economic state rather than a spiritual state.

A problem for the Schlegels, marriage is considered the ultimate good by poor Jacky. Women like Jacky are the price society, pays for its double standard and its double view of women: she is used, discarded, and condemned; a clearly unfair treatment for any human being Helen blames men for the Jacky’s plight rather than blaming her. All three women represent important aspects of female Edwardian society. Ruth follows expectations without question or criticism and is content. Jacky attempts to comply with society!s grossly unfair standards, and fails. Only Margaret finds a medium between her expected role (respectable wife) and modern feminism—her progressive principles which ultimately prove more enduring than the unequal ways of the past.

Together, the three form a realistic portrayal of the expectations, limitations, and standards which dictated the lives of Edwardian women. By establishing Margaret in Howards End, Forster accomplishes a compromise; change is inevitable, but not all change is bad. Some of the older, traditional values can still be held, as shown by Ruth’s character onto even with the changing role of women, like the importance of family. Margaret and develop and nurture their own versions of the New Woman, and their versions, though they will not last forever, are an amicable compromise.

01 April 2020
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