Summer 1910; a fashionable townhouse in London’s upscale Wickham Place. It’s the home of independent and idealistic sisters Margaret (the elder, who is pushing 30) and Helen Schlegel (about 25), and their teenaged brother Tibby, who is suffering from hay fever. Helen is away, and their Aunt Juley Munt is staying with Margaret and Tibby in her absence. We learn that, after the deaths of their parents, Margaret took sole charge of her younger siblings. Aunt Juley worries that this has caused Margaret to miss opportunities.
A letter arrives from Helen, who is vacationing at Howards End, the country home of the affluent Wilcox family, whom the Schlegel girls met on a recent tour of Germany. Helen is having a splendid time, describing the bucolic scene, the charming house, and its lively occupants: Henry Wilcox (head of the Imperial and West African Rubber Company) and his elder son Charles, who are practicing croquet on the front lawn; daughter Evie, exercising on a calisthenics contraption; and Henry’s wife Ruth Wilcox, who wanders ethereally in and out. The younger son Paul, whom Helen has yet to meet, is due that morning.
Another letter from Helen, who has taken an instant liking to Paul, “the handsomest member of the family, and not over-serious like Charles.” She and Henry butt heads over women’s equality, but with a few gentle words, Ruth shuts down any unpleasantness, indicating who really rules the household. Helen is pleased that Paul is on her side – so much so that, a couple of days later, a third letter from Helen announces that she and Paul “are in love.”
Margaret and Aunt Juley, concerned that the relationship is moving too fast, argue over which of them should hurry to Howards End and intervene. Margaret insists on going if Tibby is feeling better. He isn’t, so Aunt Juley sets off on the train, just before an urgent telegram arrives from Helen: “All over. Wish I’d never written. Tell no one.”
Aunt Juley arrives at the depot and is directed to Charles – “Mr. Wilcox, the younger” – who is awaiting delivery of a package. He offers to drive Aunt Juley to Howards End in his motorcar, and, mistaking him for Paul, she expresses her views about the romance. Charles is livid – Paul is being sent to Africa for the family business and this “idiotic mistake” will upset all their plans. Aunt Juley takes offense at this implied insult to her niece, and they end up shouting at each other for most of the drive. They pull up in front of the house, and, as Helen tries to explain, Ruth defuses the situation. Aunt Juley takes Helen back to London, and later, Helen tells Margaret that the Wilcoxes’ hardhearted reaction to the snafu has permanently altered her opinion of them.
Several months later. Margaret, Tibby, Aunt Juley, and Helen are in a packed concert hall, listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Just as the movement ends, Helen rises and hurries out. The downtrodden young man sitting next to her, Leonard Bast, points out to Margaret that Helen has “quite inadvertently” taken his umbrella. Leonard accepts Margaret’s proffered calling card – he can retrieve his umbrella from them after the concert, and perhaps stay for tea. But once there, Leonard is overwhelmed by the poshness of their home and their over-effusive friendliness, and, thinking they are patronizing him, he decamps in a huff, ignoring their entreaties.
We follow Leonard on his long walk home to a very different section of London, as he lets himself into his gloomy basement flat. Relieved to find nobody home, he eagerly sits down with a book, using Margaret’s calling card as a bookmark. The other occupant of the flat soon appears – she is Jacky, a blowsy woman at least a decade older than Leonard. They are not married, but have an understanding. It’s soon clear that Jacky is pathetically insecure, not overly bright, and getting on Leonard’s last nerve.
A few weeks later, Margaret has a surprise encounter with Henry Wilcox; the Wilcoxes have rented a flat just across the street from them. Henry is very pleased to see her again, but Evie, unloading packages from the car, pretends not to notice Margaret and hurries inside. Aunt Juley and Margaret are apprehensive about Helen’s reaction to the new neighbors, but Helen claims to be indifferent; she will soon be off to Germany anyway.
The next day, Aunt Juley finally departs for home, Helen embarks on her trip to Germany, and Ruth Wilcox calls, leaving the family’s new address scrawled on the back of her card. Margaret writes to Ruth that the incident with Paul and Helen has permanently strained the relationship between their families; it would be better if they didn’t meet. Ruth, resting in bed and evidently in fragile health, fires back an angry response – Margaret shouldn’t have written that, as Paul has left for Africa and will be gone indefinitely. Margaret, mortified, hurries across the street to apologize to Ruth in person. They hit it off, and as her family is away for two weeks and Ruth is alone, Margaret stays. Charles has married a young lady named Dolly, Ruth explains, and they settle in to chat.
A few days later, Margaret hosts a luncheon party in Ruth’s honor, inviting some of her more progressive and opinionated young friends. Ruth, far more conservative in her views, feels out of place among them, and while she later professes to have enjoyed the lunch, she did not. But it doesn’t ruin their friendship, and the next day, Ruth suggests that Margaret join her to help with her Christmas shopping. “Write your name at the top of the list,” Ruth insists. As they shop, Margaret casually mentions that the Schlegels will soon have to find a new place to live – their building is being torn down to make way for new construction. Ruth is distressed by the news that Margaret’s family will be turned out of their childhood home. The same thing almost happened to Howards End, Ruth confides, and it would have killed her. Impulsively, Ruth implores Margaret to accompany her to Howards End right away. Margaret is taken aback and begs off – Ruth is obviously tired and the weather is bad. Ruth is deeply disappointed and abruptly ends their shopping trip.
Later at home, Margaret glances out the window and spies Ruth getting into a carriage. Guessing that she is bound for Howards End after all, she follows Ruth to the train station and surprises her there. Can she still join her? Ruth is delighted and grateful – of course! But as they approach the first class cars, they encounter an ebullient Henry and Evie Wilcox, unexpectedly back from their trip. Their outing must wait until another day, Ruth tells Margaret regretfully, as she is swept up by her family and borne away. And suddenly Margaret is alone.