Margaret: So often I feel we live chatting away at the edge of a great abyss. I don’t want to close my eyes to it or comfortably pretend it isn’t here. I don’t want io live in it. Is that very wicked and selfish of me?
Helen: It’s better than your friends the Wilcoxes who batter their way through the abyss pulling heaps of money from it.
Margaret: That’s wrong and unfair. At least they live in the world and not on or above it.
This second episode of Howards End opens with a stunning shot of a beautifully stark winter landscape, through which black-clad figures make their way to a graveyard. Margaret is the only non-family member at the funeral of Mrs. Wilcox, and on the receiving end of filthy looks from the family. Back at Howards End, the Wilcox children throw tantrums about her motivations and sincerity (and she brought red flowers to the funeral!).
Worse, among Mrs. Wilcox’s effects is a note that expresses her wish for Margaret Schlegel to inherit the house. The Wilcox children decide the note is not legally or morally binding: it’s written in pencil and unsigned, and maybe Miss Schlegel took advantage of her... Mr. Wilcox is the only one who takes Margaret’s side, praising her sincerity and the value of her friendship with his late wife, and seems to be the only one who truly grieves for her. Eldest son Charles (Joe Bannister) throws the note on the fire, putting an end to any obligations. So that’s that, right?
On to the Schlegels, whom we see at home and not in the best light, as privileged people with time on their hands. Their bickering seems to relieve boredom, and in Margaret’s case, the stress of house-hunting. Helen and Tibby are only too ready to disparage the Wilcox family, yet the two sisters shout their brother down when he tells them the truth about the brutality of the rubber industry. I'm beginning to think that the sisters' self-assurance is much more fragile than we originally thought. The Wilcox family has sent Margaret Mrs. Wilcox's silver vinaigrette (a small decorative box to hold perfume) and they’re still dying to know what inspired their mother to offer her Howards End.
The next day the Schlegels receive a surprise visitor. Mrs. Bast, easily identified as lower-class by her clothes, accent, and manners, is refused entry by the maid who answers the front door. Jacky pushes her way in, brandishing the card Margaret gave Leonard at their first meeting, and demands to see her husband. The Schlegels do not handle her invasion well. Tibby mentions loudly that Aunt Juley had been afraid of Bast stealing the silver, and the two sisters, with better intentions, blunder just as badly. By this time we (but not the Schlegels) know that Leonard and Jacky are not married (he’s too young to marry without his family’s permission), the subject of their fight the night before, resulting in Leonard staying out all night. Jacky is angry and humiliated, but Helen and Margaret become even more curious about Leonard Bast.
Later that day, Leonard shows up, nervously accepts a cup of tea, and admits that he was out walking all night. The Schlegel sisters’ reaction is not what he expects—they are thrilled, and ask him if the dawn was beautiful (it wasn’t). Despite his love of literature, Leonard is no poet, or even able to talk about books with them on an equal level.
By this point we know that the three families will be in and out of each other’s lives so it’s no surprise that Margaret and Helen meet Wilcox strolling on the Thames Embankment, where he’s gone to quietly grieve his dead wife. They, of course, are fresh from a progressive meeting with their “pious lecturing friends” (as Tibby would put it) and have a new hobby—helping Leonard Bast. They ask Wilcox for advice—should they give him money? Wilcox advises them to keep their distance and that the best thing they can do is advise him to leave his job at the Porphyrion, a fire insurance company which is facing collapse.
Margaret and Helen invite Leonard to tea, and he assures them that the Porphyrion is in good shape, but they’re interrupted by a surprise visit from Wilcox and his daughter Evie. Leonard abruptly leaves, but Helen chases after him and they have a long, heated exchange. Leonard, frustrated by the Schlegel’s manners, education, and conversation, and intimidated by their wealthy friends, is convinced that they do not take him seriously. Tibby’s casual mentions of Helen’s “social experiments,” and the maid’s inability to find Leonard’s hat, only convince him that’s he’s right.
Wilcox’s daughter Evie (Bessie Carter) invites Margaret to lunch. Helen, by far the more sophisticated of the two sisters, points out that it’s an invitation from Wilcox himself as an opening gambit in courtship, and the problem of suitable housing may be resolved. I don’t think this is meant seriously, but it’s difficult to tell. They lunch at the expensive traditional restaurant Simpsons in the Strand, where Wilcox naturally tries to order for everyone, and is swatted down by Margaret in a friendly sort of way; and that girl certainly knows her cheeses.
Margaret then feels compelled to invite Wilcox to lunch, but, here's the problem—as a single woman, even in the depths of bohemian London, she needs a chaperone. Tibby, who is taking his time about returning to Oxford so he can get a job, reluctantly takes on the role. They introduce Wilcox to the joys of Eustace Miles’s Restaurant which serves reform food (vegetarian) in a woman/suffragist-friendly environment. Wilcox meets Margaret’s challenge and gamely chews his way through unidentifiable substances.
Flashing back to the beginning of the series, a letter arrives. It’s from Mr. Wilcox, inviting the Schlegels to rent his London house, but by this time I think we know what he’s really offering.
What did you think of this episode? Do you think Leonard really wants to marry Jacky? Are Margaret and Wilcox both exercising stupendous lapses in judgment? And, again, when will Margaret get to Howards End? Let’s discuss!