Helen Schlegel writes three letters to her older sister “Meg,” or Margaret. Helen is staying at Howards End, an “old and little” house in the English countryside. In the first letter, she describes the charming house and the family who lives there, the Wilcoxes. Because the wealthy Wilcoxes seemed quite haughty when the sisters first met them, Margaret and Helen had imagined that their house would be much grander—more like a manor rather than an old farmhouse. Margaret was also invited to visit, but she stayed in London to care for their brother, Tibby, who is suffering from hay fever. Helen writes that the Wilcox children—Charles, Evie, and Paul—and their father, Henry, all suffer from hay fever as well, but are more stoic about it than Tibby. Only Ruth Wilcox, Henry’s wife, is immune, and she loves the hay and the flowers.
Forster chooses to open the novel with letters written by Helen rather than with the perspective of the omniscient narrator who comments on human behavior throughout the rest of the novel. Delaying the narrative commentary allows readers to experience indirectly the surface charm of the Wilcoxes and understand its raw appeal before the family’s charisma is criticized and explained. Readers are also put into the place of Helen’s sister, Margaret, by reading the messages addressed to her. Before Forster introduces Margaret to his audience in the next chapter, he gives them a chance to imagine how they would think in her shoes, as the recipient of Helen’s letters.
In Helen’s next letter, she reports that she is “having a glorious time” with the Wilcoxes. She admires Ruth for being so sweet, steady, and unselfish. Henry convincingly talks Helen out of all of her beliefs learned from books—women’s suffrage, universal equality—and she laments, “Meg, shall we ever learn to talk less?” She enjoys joining the family on drives around the country and laughs at their hay fever. In Helen’s last, brief letter, she tells her sister that she has fallen in love with Paul.
Helen establishes the characterization of Ruth Wilcox as calm and selfless, and Henry Wilcox as smooth and anti-intellectual. The Wilcoxes are associated with motor cars and mechanical modern life, their allergies emphasizing their alienation from nature and its rhythms. Helen’s abrupt declaration of her love for Paul also seems outside of the natural rhythm of things—it appears out of nowhere, fully formed, with no organic growth or evolution.