This was perhaps my first real introduction to literature, apart from "1984", the inevitable smart-schoolboy read, and "Sons And Lovers". As such it was a revelation - Forster's empathy, subtlety, lyricism and chracterisation are magnificent, while being oddly inobtrusive. There are no verbal pyrotechnics as you might find in DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, but a deeper vision of life that was wonderful to encounter at 15.
Forster's writing trajectory had led him to be able to write a "condition of England" novel - while his previous novels had perhaps erred on the side of social satire and comedy ("A Room With A View" and "Where Angels Fear To Tread"), or been a personal projection ("The Longest Journey"), "Howards End" is more the work of a professional novelist. It has a far greater scale than his previous novels, is in fact a great novel of London, and there is less of the mythology which appears overtly in his short stories and covertly in his previous fiction (especially "The Longest Journey").
The novel is almost entirely character driven - the plot, like life itself, is somewhat formless and inchoate. Two contrasting families, the cultured Schlegels and the financial-sector Wilcoxes, clash and mesh over the course of the novel. Their interactions, contrasts and enmeshings form the action of the novel. At the background Howards End, the house of Mrs Wilcox, stands as repository of all the values Forster cherishes, as the reconcilliation of all divisive opposites.
During the novel Margaret Schelegel and Mrs Wilcox become friends. But after an illness Mrs Wilcox dies, and Mr Wilcox, Henry, later marries Margaret, the elder and more empathetic of the Schlegel sisters. (Helen in contrast is more impetuous, less considered - poetry rather than prose). But unknown to Margaret, a dying bequest to leave Howards End to Margaret is dismissed and burned. At the end of the novel, after various unlikely contortions, Margaret is finally living in Howards End, as a sort of spiritual sucessor of Mrs Wilcox, in more than name. Here Forster's latent mysticism becomes apparent, but it's not incongruous or off-putting; rather it's a matter of values. Margaret by marrying into the Wilcoxes and infusing her ideals into their (as demonstrated by the novel) rather barren view of life, thus enriches all around her. She stands for integration and completion, rather than seperation and isolation, as seen in Helen's isolating the blame for Leonard Bast's misfortunes on Henry, or Henry's failure to connect his shameful past with his treatment of Helen when she is pregnant.
As said above, Howards End is a symbol of the reconcilliation of opposites - "Only connect!", as Margaret (and Forster) would say. Prose and passion, the inner life and the outer, city life and country life, culture and business, all stand conjoined by the end of the novel, when the baby is being taken out into the hayfield (plainly Forster's imagining of his young self) outside Howards End.
This is a magnificent novel, large in scope, with unforgettable characters (you often see people who you think are like Margaret or Henry or Helen or indeed Tibby), a vision that is unique and a subtle imagery that resonates ever louder with every re-reading. Its discussions of music, art and the topography of England are worth reading the novel for alone. While Forster can sometimes be obscured behind the more famous DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, this novel is the greatest to come out of Edwardian England.