Margaret (Hayley Atwell) and Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) are intelligent and idealistic young women living together with their hypochondriac younger brother Tibby (Alex Lawther) in Edwardian London. Since the death of their parents and despite their interfering Aunt Juley's (Tracey Ullman) best intentions, the sisters lead independent and slightly unorthodox lives. But after meeting the wealthy and conservative Wilcox family on holiday, Margaret forms a friendship with the older and more traditional Ruth Wilcox (Julia Ormond). When Ruth unexpectedly dies, Margaret finds herself increasingly drawn to the newly widowed Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen), a self-made businessman who inherits his late wife's beloved country home Howards End. Meanwhile, the passionate and capricious Helen takes up the cause of Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), a young bank clerk who is struggling to make ends meet, trapped by his promise to marry his alluring but vulnerable lover Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar).