Howards End opens with three letters that Helen Schlegel writes to her older sister Margaret, whom she fondly calls Meg. Helen is visiting the Wilcox family, whom the sisters met while traveling in Germany, at their country estate, Howards End. Helen describes the place as being different than what she and her sister had expected. It is an old brick country house surrounded by a garden, meadow, and a large wych-elm. Helen expresses regret that Margaret was unable to join her at Howards End, for she had to stay behind in London to care for their younger brother, Tibby, who is sick with hay fever.
The letters reveal that Helen is having a wonderful time. She describes how Mrs. Wilcox trails around the garden in her long dress while the rest of the family plays croquet. She is enchanted by the family, and things that she would normally find fault with, such as Mr. Wilcox correcting her on the issue of women's suffrage, she does not at all mind. Helen's visit culminates in her announcement to her sister that after knowing each other for just four days, she and Paul Wilcox, the middle child, are in love.
Back at the Schlegel home in Wickham Place, Margaret and Tibby are being kept company by Aunt Juley Munt, who is their deceased mother's sister. When Margaret and Aunt Juley discuss Helen's latest letter announcing her love affair, Margaret explains that she has never even met Paul, thus she cannot offer information. She maintains, however, that if her sister is truly in love, her feelings are all that matters, regardless of the object of her affection. She resolves to go to Howards End to see her sister, yet Aunt Juley insists that it would be better if someone older, like herself, to go. Margaret firmly but politely objects, yet after checking on Tibby to find his health unimproved, she decides that it would be better for Aunt Juley to go after all.
Giving Aunt Juley instructions not to mention the engagement to anybody but Helen, Margaret accompanies her to the King's Cross railroad station, a place the narrator notes, Margaret sees as suggesting "infinity." Just after having seen her aunt off, she returns to Wickham Place to find a telegram from Helen. The short message reveals that the romance with Paul is already over and instructs Margaret to keep the situation a secret. However, Aunt Juley is already on her way.
On the train, Aunt Juley relishes the opportunity to come to the aid of her nieces. With both of their parents deceased, she sees it as her responsibility to keep them out of trouble. If anything, she wishes that she had a greater role in their lives. Upon arriving at her destination, the train station at Hilton, she asks a ticket boy where she can find Howards End. Coincidentally, a member of the Wilcox clan is at the station at that very moment picking up a parcel. Upon meeting him, Aunt Juley inquires as to whether he is the elder or the younger Mr. Wilcox, to which he replies that he is the younger.
Assuming that he is Paul Wilcox, Aunt Juley accepts a ride with him so that they may talk things over. While she remembers Margaret's instructions to keep quiet about the situation, she decides that it would be all right to discuss the situation with Paul himself. She begins to hint at the matter of the romance, and it quickly becomes apparent that her companion is not Paul, but his older brother Charles Wilcox.
With the secret of the romance between Helen and Paul thereby revealed, Charles expresses his outrage at his brother's foolishness, causing Aunt Juley to become outraged at his arrogance. They spend the rest of the drive in a heated argument, finally pulling up to Howards End to find Helen rushing out to her aunt to tell her that it is all over. Charles is annoyed at the entire situation, thinking that his brother, who is about to move to Africa to pursue his fortune, should know better. In the midst of all the chaos, Mrs. Wilcox calmly emerges from the garden to say that the engagement has ended and the entire matter is done with.
And so, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes go their separate ways. Once reunited with Margaret, Helen describes everything that happened. The romance was impulsive and brief, and ended as soon as it began. Helen was so bewitched by Howards End and the Wilcox family that she thought she loved Paul, yet the next morning, reality set in for both of them. She recalls how Paul looked terrified and so she did him a favor by telling him that the previous night had been nonsense. The only consolation, Helen maintains, was that Mrs. Wilcox miraculously knew of the whole situation and managed to make it slightly less terrible to endure.
E.M. Forster's epigraph for Howards End is: "Only connect...". Thus, the opening chapters of the book serve to establish differences that must somehow eventually be reconciled. The most obvious difference is between the two families that are introduced. On the one hand, there are the Schlegels, who are romantic, idealistic, and curious. They allow themselves to get caught up in the moment, and often act on impulse. On the other hand, the Wilcoxes are highly practical. They are more concerned with what makes the most sense rather than what makes one happiest. By presenting the brief love affair between Helen and Paul, the gap between these two families and their approaches to life is immediately revealed. For them to find some common ground is a central mission of the novel, and different characters will play roles in this struggle.
The relationship between the Schlegel sisters is extremely strong. Their English mother died when they were relatively young, and their German father died several years later. The young ladies are independent and capable, but Aunt Juley worries about their ability to sustain respectable lives. As the sister of their English mother, Aunt Juley sees the girls as more English than German, and she brings this up several times. The Schlegel sisters respect both sides of their background, however, for the family political debates of their younger years contributed greatly to their intellectual development.
In addition to being intellectual, the Schlegel sisters have keen emotional senses, for they value personal relationships above all things. For example, Margaret is happy for her sister upon hearing that she is in love. She considers her sister's satisfaction far more important than anything else. Meanwhile, Charles is horrified at his brother's stupidity at becoming emotionally involved, and considers the entire love affair ridiculous. For Charles, Paul's feelings are irrelevant, as he must soon depart to Nigeria.
The first chapters present a failed opportunity for connection. Spending time with the Wilcoxes forces Helen to question her own ideals. At first, she does so good-naturedly when hearing Mr. Wilcox's opinions on women's suffrage, but it is much more difficult for her when it comes to love. She is ready to give in to her emotions, but Paul realizes the importance of being sensible. He would rather be respected by his father and brother than be loved by a young woman. Helen is used to an environment where romance and personal relations conquer all, but at the Wilcox home meets a rude awakening. She has her sister's wholehearted support, but the outside world presents more of a challenge.
The exception to the highly practical Wilcox family is Mrs. Wilcox. While the rest of the family is firm and stubborn, she is relaxed and kind, and seems to feel herself a kindred spirit to the Schlegel girls. At Howards End, she spends much of her time in the garden, wearing a long dress that drags behind her. This is a highly romantic image as well as an expression of her refusal to conform to practicality. Even in the midst of the crisis between Helen, Paul, Charles, and Aunt Juley, Mrs. Wilcox effectively diffuses the situation, but still finds time to stop and admire a rose.
The political tensions present in the novel cannot be ignored, for they occur throughout. The backgrounds of Margaret and Helen are relevant not only in terms of their perspectives on life, but in terms of the disconnect between them and the Wilcoxes. In the time that Forster was composing this work, the political conflict between England and Germany that erupted in World War I was steadily brewing. The Schlegels German heritage might be held against them in British society, especially by the Wilcoxes who are extremely English. Yet, the Schlegels also have British blood, which helps them develop a wider perspective, both on the world and in terms of differences between individuals. This is a trait that appears repeatedly in the novel, especially concerning Margaret.