Howards End is frequently viewed as the second-most-ambitious of E.M. Forster's novels (the most ambitious is generally admitted to be A Passage to India, in which Forster attempts to take on the question of the British Empire and its position in the world). This is not to say that Howards End doesn't take on a huge project in its own right: in it, Forster takes a crack at the "condition of England" novel, a genre that took off in the nineteenth century. As the name indicates, this kind of novel attempts to draw a fleshed-out picture of the social world of England and its many, many problems, often with the goal of sketching out some kind of change for the future.
Howards End, which Forster published in 1910, is sometimes viewed as the last of the great nineteenth century condition of England novels. Forster spreads his plot over a wide range of social classes and conditions, and demonstrates the fact that they're all inextricably connected, and that the strictly hierarchical social system of the now-dead Victorian period no longer applies. Forster's take on Edwardian society (the period that followed the Victorian) is critical but also hopeful, and proposes a possible future in which people do find ways to connect with each other despite their differences.
Why Should I Care?
Howards End is now over hundred years old, and it seems like a highly appropriate time to ponder its meaning for us today. On the surface, it doesn't seem like we've got much in common with the Schlegel and Wilcox families, and their troubles with the modernization of English society don't look like they've got anything in common with the über-post-modern world we live in today. However, if you look a little deeper, you might realize that the questions that E.M. Forster's asking about the England of 1910 aren't so very different from questions facing any nation today.
How so? Well, Howard's End basically demands that we rethink what it means to be English, and what it means to have a national identity at all in an age of imperial tensions and divisions. The novel's looking at the problem of reconciling different national identities or characters, despite the fact that the countries behind them are at odds (specifically, England and Germany). In our multicultural world, we're faced with the same challenging questions of identity every day – after all, in a country of immigrants, who among us doesn't have a complicated relationship with our own roots?
Forster's novel, however, idealistically suggests a solution that we can all strive for: basically, this all boils down to Margaret Schlegel's fervent desire to "Only connect!" The novel yearns for a world in which we all reach out and connect with each other, not only as representatives of our countries or our religions, but as members of the human race.