Helen In ‘Howards End’ Is The Imperfect Millennial Hero You Didn’t Know You’d Find In A Period Drama
British period dramas like Howards End are often viewed as an escape from real life, but the recent Starz adaptation of E. M. Forster's novel feels particularly modern, especially in its portrayal of the two lead female characters. Though she's not the most outspoken or rebellious heroine of late, women in 2018 can connect to Helen in Howards End just as easily as they can to Abbi and Ilana on Broad City or even June in The Handmaid's Tale — it's just that instead of being a #relatable millennial or suggestive of a dystopian future, Phillipa Coulthard's character is intelligent, imperfect, and just trying to live her best life. Spoilers for Episode 1.
Helen and Margaret already appear to be women out of time in 1907 London at the beginning of the series. They are middle class suffragettes raised in a city full of culture and diversity. Their friends include women of color, and they aren't confined to the home and church like we're used to seeing in, say, a Jane Austen adaptation for example. However, just because most period dramas don't portray Edwardian women like this doesn't mean they didn't exist underneath the corsets and the tea drinking. Their story begins on Howards End when they come into contact with families from different socio-economic classes — one above their own, and one below. Also, there's romance, because there are some things period dramas wouldn't dare eschew.
And honestly, every character in the miniseries has some #relatable moments. When Mrs. Wilcox says she's "taking a day in bed" — you may not have put it that politely, but you've certainly been there. When Margaret buddies up to the wife of a man she's attracted to? There's at least one Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song about that. When everyone praises Margaret for being independent and intellectual while also telling her she's destined to be alone forever — just @ us next time, Edwardian era.
Not only are these women of the past represented on screen in a way that's modern just by way of being complex and by asking more of them than serving the male characters in the story, but their successes and their woes are the same, in essence, as ours today. But it is Helen, as the younger Schlegel lady, who is most likely to make you utter "same" at your TV screen. Here's when you'll feel the connection the most:
When Men Are Talking
Helen's incredulous reaction to the "bosh"-filled male opinions about women's suffrage and other progressive issues spoken about at the Wilcox table is very you. But she also actually enjoys being outside of her bubble and engaging in a debate. She doesn't stop listening when they say something with which she disagrees. She actually writes her sister later about how refreshing it was to be argued with. It's actually admirable.
When Your Summer Boo Becomes A Summer Who
In period drama, the lack of cell phones is usually not so forcefully felt — these are real people having real conversations. But has anything in any adaptation ever felt more like a texting mishap than Helen sending a "jk, not engaged" telegram?
When Your Joke Backfires & It Gets Awkward
The most relatable moment for Helen comes in the middle of the premiere episode, when she accidentally steals an umbrella and then manages to insult the umbrella's poor owner in an attempt at self-deprecating humor. There's a fine line between trying to undercut your own privilege and making someone feel bad about theirs, and she stepped on it.
This is also a double whammy of apologetic syndrome, for women especially. Helen puts herself down with the umbrella, Leonard is embarrassed and leaves, and Margaret blames Helen for frightening him away. Nobody wins.
When Your Brother Is Talking
Helen really does serve some eye rolls on Howards End that would put Lady Mary's on Downton Abbey to shame.
When You Doth Protest Too Much
"Oh my poor dear broken-hearted girl," Aunt Juley says. "Am I," Helen responds. "What's the matter?" Somehow, both Helen's denial over her feelings about Paul moving to the neighborhood and Margaret and Juley's attempts to coddle her about it feels all too real. Family's the best.
How does she avoid her feelings? By running away to Germany with her BFF. Girl's trips are highly advisable no matter the decade.
Honorable Tibby Mention:
That's a stereotypical millennial #mood if there ever was one. He tried, and therefore no one should criticize him.
Just because Howards End focuses on class struggles somewhat unlike ours in 2018 — and Helen spends half a monologue describing flowers in the country — that does not mean that it has to be inaccessible. Later on in the miniseries, she becomes frustrated that her family, while liberal, is all talk and no action — something that young women may be especially feeling in 2018.
Representing women on screen sometimes means rewriting our perceptions of history. And it turns out that Edwardian women are just like us.