Howards End | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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Howards End | Chapters 11–12 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 11

A woodcutter views Mrs. Wilcox's funeral in Hilton from an elm tree he is pruning. The villagers attending the funeral remember her as a kind woman, one of "the old sort." After the funeral, the man finishes cutting the tree limb, which falls down. He steals a chrysanthemum from a bouquet at the funeral. The next morning, returning from seeing his girlfriend, he wishes he'd taken the whole bouquet of flowers.

Evie, Charles, Dolly, and Mr. Wilcox are at Howards End the day after the funeral, each mourning Mrs. Wilcox differently. Dolly wishes her death had not cut short her honeymoon with Charles. Mr. Wilcox remembers his wife as steady and virtuous. He only resents that she hadn't told him of her illness and had died so suddenly. When Charles is out in the garage looking over his car, which he believes has been driven in his absence, Dolly comes out to tell him about a letter Mr. Wilcox has received. It has something to do with Margaret Schlegel and the house. Mr. Wilcox is annoyed at Dolly for disobeying him by speaking of the matter out in the open.

He brings the family together to share the news that he has received a letter from a matron at the nursing home where Mrs. Wilcox had been staying. The matron has forwarded a brief note from Mrs. Wilcox expressing her desire that Howards End be left to Margaret. Dolly says such a note cannot be legally binding, an obvious fact the others dismiss. Charles and his father discuss instead if the handwriting is actually that of Mrs. Wilcox, whether she may have been unduly influenced by Margaret, and if Mrs. Wilcox even knew what she was doing when she wrote the note. Mr. Wilcox does not believe Margaret influenced Mrs. Wilcox, although Charles and Evie remain suspicious. All feel the bequest is a betrayal on Mrs. Wilcox's part, and they decide to decline her last wish and burn the note. They fail to understand that to her, Howards End was more than a home: it "had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir."

Chapter 12

Margaret tells Helen, just back from her trip to Germany, that she received a letter from Charles Wilcox, asking if his mother had given her something. Margaret replied that Mrs. Wilcox had said something about a Christmas gift. She is charmed by the small present of a silver vinaigrette, or small decorative bottle, that Mr. Wilcox sends in response. She thinks him kind and admires the Wilcox family "grit." She contrasts their value of the seen with the Schlegel value of the unseen, urging Helen "not to contrast the two, but to reconcile them." Tibby attends Oxford but remains friendless. Margaret reflects on the changes in her life over the previous six months and the changeability of life, calling it "dangerous" and "unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty."

Analysis

In Chapter 12 the author raises the theme of bridging the gap between romanticism and modern life by again contrasting the Wilcox and Schlegel families. Margaret is attracted to the grittiness of the Wilcox family, so in command of the "seen," the practical, material world. In contrast, the Schlegels value and concentrate on the "unseen," the world of ideas and the arts. Margaret now sees that it is her job to reconcile the two. The author inserts a plot twist in Chapter 11 with Mrs. Wilcox's unexpected death and bequest to Margaret of Howards End that expands on this theme.

Looking back, signs of Mrs. Wilcox's illness were present. All those days she stayed in bed, the times Margaret saw how she looked tired, the times she said that she didn't feel well, were all clues to her impending demise. Still the sudden start of the chapter with a funeral scene, but without naming the person who has died for several paragraphs, adds to the shock of the event.

Even more surprising to readers and the Wilcox family is Mrs. Wilcox's deathbed bequest of her dearest possession, Howards End, to Margaret. The tension this creates for her family leads to the novel's ultimate climax. Mrs. Wilcox's wish to leave her childhood home to Margaret shows just what Mrs. Wilcox saw in her—a "spiritual heir" to the house that was not bricks and mortar to her, but a living soul. Her desire for friendship with Margaret now makes more sense, as does her impulsive, impassioned invitation for Margaret to visit Howards End earlier in the novel.

Mr. Wilcox and his children genuinely mourn Mrs. Wilcox's death, but their response to her loss shows how their perception of her has limitations. His children's grief "though less poignant than their father's," is authentic, even if it may not initially seem so, with Charles complaining peevishly about his car. Mr. Wilcox is genuinely upset, but he also sees Mrs. Wilcox in a stereotypical way, as the quintessential Victorian wife—passive, "innocent," and "tender." Once the family discovers that she has left Howards End to Margaret, it is clear that the Wilcoxes never understood how meaningful the house was to her. In fact, they immediately change their positive feelings toward Mrs. Wilcox as a result: "Yesterday they lamented: she was a dear mother, a true wife ... today they thought: "She was not as true, as dear, as we supposed." The Wilcoxes feel betrayed and consider her bequest "treacherous." This reveals an uncomfortable truth about them: their personal relationships are outweighed by the importance of property and possessions.

In Chapter 12 Margaret doesn't realize the duplicity of Charles's letter. She thinks he is being kind, inquiring if there is anything left undone as he takes care of his mother's affairs after her death. She mistakes the small gift they send her as a sign of their generosity. Readers, however, know more than Margaret about the Wilcox family and their largely negative reaction to Mrs. Wilcox's bequest. As a result, they can infer the real motive behind Charles's question, which was to ascertain whether Margaret was aware of his late mother's desire to leave her Howards End. He doesn't trust her. She clearly knew nothing of it, and continues to be unaware of Charles's resentment and mistrust. Mr. Wilcox, on the other hand, feels sure that Margaret is "honest," and is not as suspicious of her as his son, but his gift to her of a small silver bottle, minuscule in comparison to a house, suggests that he may be deliberately concealing his wife's gift to her of Howards End.

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