As Helen watches, Margaret nervously prepares for her meeting with Henry to evaluate his London home as a possible dwelling for the Schlegels. “You won’t do anything rash, will you?” asks Helen anxiously. Margaret dismisses her concerns and walks out to find Henry waiting in the street with his chauffeur Crane and a new motorcar. During the ride, Henry and Margaret each confess to being lonely.
As they tour Henry’s ornate home, he confesses that he has invited Margaret there “on false pretenses,” and he proposes marriage to her very awkwardly, hoping she won’t be offended. Margaret assures him that she isn’t (flattered and moved, perhaps), but needs time to think; she will write to him with her answer. If it’s no, Henry tells her, she can just tell him now – he’ll rent her the house either way. Margaret smiles enigmatically.
Back at Wickham Place, Helen, Tibby, and Aunt Juley are in a lather of anticipation as Margaret returns: has she taken the house? Margaret steals Helen away and tells her of Henry’s proposal. Helen’s reaction is first derision, then incredulity, and finally horror. “Don’t do this!” implores Helen, citing the Wilcoxes’ icy reaction when her short-lived relationship with Paul became known. Margaret presents calm and rational arguments for the match – she knows Henry’s faults and is going into this with her eyes open. “I don’t intend to correct him, or reform him. Only connect.” Helen is unconvinced.
Cut to Swanage, where the Schlegels and Aunt Juley are on holiday. They welcome an ebullient Henry arriving in yet another new motorcar. Later, as we admire Margaret’s new engagement ring, she and Henry stroll along the pier. He has bonded with Tibby, but not yet with Helen. They discuss finances; Henry is taken aback by Margaret’s frank question: “How much have you got?” She urges him to be generous to his children and not to worry about her as she has money of her own. Henry clearly doesn’t know quite what to make of such an independent woman. “When do you want to marry me?” she asks bluntly as passersby titter.
As they walk across the lawn back to the house, Henry suddenly flings his cigar onto the grass and pulls Margaret into an awkward embrace, kissing her forcefully and badly. She contemplates this for a moment, and then does the same thing to him, but smoothly and passionately. Pleased with herself, she confidently strides into the house as Henry stares after her, befuddled: what is he getting himself into?
Charles, livid, reads his father’s message announcing his engagement. He blames his wife Dolly: if she hadn’t fixed up Evie with her uncle Percy, Evie wouldn’t have left Henry alone to take up with Margaret. Dolly, now pregnant with their second child, is indignant: she can’t control the actions of her uncle or anyone else. Fuming, Charles vows to keep a sharp eye on the Schlegels, lest they infect the Wilcoxes with their “artistic beastliness.” Inaccurately, he snipes, “She always meant to get her hands on Howards End, and now she’s got it.”
Leonard Bast, more dejected than usual, is selling a stack of books to a street vendor and later opens his food cupboard at home; it’s almost empty. A blanket-draped Jacky angrily urges Leonard to write to the Schlegels – on their advice, he quit his job at the Porphyrion and took another at a much lower salary, so he and Jacky are almost destitute and Helen and Margaret are entirely to blame.
Still on holiday, Helen discusses Leonard’s letter with Margaret and later Henry, who is confused: he has no recollection of discussing Leonard, absently pronounces the Porphyrion “not a bad business,” doesn’t understand why the two women are so upset that Leonard quit his job for nothing, and is entirely indifferent to the situation. As Helen sputters with rage, Henry moves on to other news: the tenant at Howards End has suddenly decamped and they must decide what to do. As Margaret watches helplessly, Helen tries to have it out with Henry, but he coldly advises her not to “take up a sentimental attitude toward the poor.”
Later, Helen tells Margaret that from now on, as “an old maid,” she’s going off on her own. And to Aunt Juley’s dismay, Henry has decided that they must end their holiday early so he and Margaret can straighten out the mess at Howards End, which Margaret has yet to see.
Henry and Margaret pull up to Howards End in the pouring rain…he goes back to the lodge for the house key as Margaret hurries ahead, passing through the overgrown hedge and gazing at the garden. She tries the front door, and to her surprise, it opens. The rooms are dusty and empty of furniture, but clearly, Margaret has fallen under the house’s spell. The elderly caretaker, Miss Avery, suddenly appears on the stairs. “I took you for Ruth Wilcox,” she tells Margaret approvingly.
After a visit at Charles and Dolly’s home nearby, Henry concedes that “a little of Dolly goes a long way.” So they will not live at Howards End or at the London townhouse, but at one of Henry’s other houses, Oniton Grange in Shropshire, where Evie is planning to hold her wedding.
Back to Leonard and Jacky – he has now lost his position at the bank, and Jacky, ill, coughing, and huddled in a blanket, urges him to write again to the Schlegels to ask for a job. In response, he comes home a few days later and is angered to find Helen there, conversing with Jacky.
Margaret and the Wilcoxes arrive in Shropshire for Evie’s wedding weekend – Margaret is pleased and impressed by Oniton Grange. Evie and Charles are friendly to Margaret’s face, but privately share their resentment of what her marriage to their father could mean for their inheritance. “I’m entirely off Dad,” sniffs Evie.
The wedding reception is in progress as we cut to a train compartment where Helen, in her plainest clothes, is enroute to Shropshire with Leonard and a pallid Jacky. Leonard insists that they are making a mistake, refuses to take any more of Helen’s charity, and wants to get off at the next station. No, Helen insists – she’s going to have it out with Mr. Wilcox. Jacky perks up at the mention of Henry’s name, but doesn’t reveal why.
Henry and Margaret wander the grounds as the decadent garden reception winds down with plenty of food left; at a distance, they spot three stragglers just arriving. Telling Henry to wait, Margaret goes to greet them and is horrified to discover Leonard, Jacky, and Helen, who is spoiling for a fight with Henry. Margaret won’t allow that; she tells Leonard and Jacky to have a bite to eat at one of the reception tables, after which she will put them up at a hotel in town for the night. She spells out her terms to Helen: take them away now with no fuss and she will try to help Leonard; if not, she will do nothing. With that, she goes back to Henry, asking him to find Leonard some work, and he kindly agrees as they start to return to the house.
As Henry and Margaret approach, he catches sight of Jacky – having been served glass after glass of champagne on an empty stomach, she is now sloppily drunk, and it’s clear that she and Henry know each other very, very well indeed. Incensed, Henry levels an accusation at Margaret: her interest in the Basts was all a setup to extort him for past indiscretions; stiffly, he releases Margaret from their engagement and strides off. Flabbergasted, Margaret follows him and demands an explanation, which she gets: Jacky had been Henry’s mistress a decade earlier in Cyprus.
At the hotel that evening, Jacky insists to Leonard that she never would have come to Shropshire if she had known Henry would be there. She falls asleep, and afterward Leonard acknowledges to Helen that while his marriage to Jacky has not been happy and his family has disowned them, he must stay with her even if it lowers his own status. Helen doesn’t care that Jacky is a “fallen woman” or that Leonard is of a lower class and unemployed. All he needs is a job and things will be fine, Leonard assures her. Helen thinks he should appreciate the finer things in life, but as Leonard bluntly points out, for that, you need money. No, Helen replies, men like the Wilcoxes, and what they’ve built, aren’t real. But suddenly she seems lost and lonely. Leonard comes up behind her at the window, and together, they close the shutters to the world.
Back at her bedroom at Oniton Grange, Margaret somberly begins a letter: “My dearest boy…”