Young, pretty Helen Schlegel has left her London home to visit the Wilcox family estate, Howards End. (Helen and her sister Margaret met Mr. Wilcox and his wife while traveling in Germany.) Margaret was also invited to Howards End, but stayed home to care for their 16-year-old brother Tibby, who has hay fever. From Howards End, Helen sends Margaret several letters describing the beautiful estate and the energetic, materialistic Wilcoxes. Her last letter sends a shock through Margaret when she reads it: Helen has fallen in love with Paul, the youngest Wilcox son.
Margaret reads the letter to Aunt Juley, who has come to help care for Tibby. Aunt Juley is scandalized and thinks that the engagement will likely have to be broken off. She convinces Margaret to let her go to Howards End to look into matters. Margaret takes her to the train station and sees her on her way; however, when she returns home, there is a telegram from Helen informing her that the love affair is over, and asking her not to tell anyone what has happened.
As she travels to Howards End, Aunt Juley thinks about her peculiar nieces, who value art, idealism, and human relationships above all things. The children of her sister Emily and a German professor who moved to England, Margaret and Helen have lived alone since their parents died, but their house is constantly filled with writers, artists, thinkers, and friends. The girls are interested in forward-looking causes such as women's suffrage and socialism. Despite their connection to Germany and the increasing tension between English Imperial powers and German Imperial powers, Aunt Juley still thinks of the Schlegels as "English through and through."
After her train arrives, Aunt Juley meets Charles Wilcox, Paul's older brother. Mistaking him for Paul, Aunt Juley asks him about the engagement; this is the first Charles has heard of any engagement. Furious, he announces that Paul does not have any money, cannot marry, and must go to Nigeria to make his fortune. As Charles drives Aunt Juley to Howards End, they argue the entire way about whether the Schlegels are good enough for the Wilcoxes and vice versa. At Howards End, Charles confronts Paul, but the ethereal Mrs. Wilcox ends the dispute. Helen returns home to London with Aunt Juley. Margaret and Helen discuss what has happened--Helen and Paul simply kissed, impetuously, one night, after Helen had come to love the Wilcox family--and the intensity of human emotions in general. Aunt Juley selectively remembers her role in the incident, so that in later years she thinks that the Wilcox affair was the one time she really was able to help her sister's children.
The first four chapters of Howards End, dealing with Helen Schlegel's aborted romance with Paul Wilcox, are mainly devoted to introducing the two families around whose lives the novel is centered, and to giving the reader some idea of their moral, intellectual, and national identities. The Schlegels, represented by Margaret and Helen (and, to a lesser extent, Tibby and Aunt Juley), are intellectual, idealistic, somewhat flighty, romantic, and impractical, dedicated to "personal relations" above all things. The Wilcoxes, on the other hand, are hard-nosed, pragmatic, materialistic, and patriotic.
The only thing connecting the two families is money: They are both quite well-off, and represent two different facets of the English upper class (or upper-middle class) at the time in which the novel is set. The Schlegels represent culture, education, and a kind of idealism that Forster implies can only be obtained when one does not have to worry about money. The Wilcoxes represent the work ethic, materialism, imperialism (Paul is going to the British colony in Nigeria), conventionalism, and form. Not surprisingly, the Wilcoxes are often characterized as "solid English," and exhibit the emotional restraint and repressive conformity Forster considered typical in the England of his time. The Schlegels, coming from an English mother and a German father, are more cosmopolitan and far less conventional. In the pre-World War I years in which the novel is set, the conflict between England and Germany is just beginning to escalate into prejudice and hatred. The Schlegels face some unpleasantness about their German background, especially from people such as the Wilcoxes; but they represent an older form of German nationalism held over from the time of Kant and Goethe.