Comparative literary analysis: social dislocations in Howards End by E.M Forster and Emma by Jane Austen

Written a century apart, Howards End by E.M Forster and Emma by Jane Austen are two significant depictions of the English society. Portraying several social changes respectively at the beginnings of the 19th and 20th century, those two novels could be compared to understand the evolution of England. 

With respect to the different historical events they were confronted to, each novel refers to a certain amount of social dislocations – which to some extent – appears to be very similar. Social dislocation, here referred to as the violent changes happening in society, is indeed both in Howards End and Emma, something that is frequently observed. 

This is the reason why one could wonder how the social dislocations present in Austen’s novel or E.M Forster’s one are differing? In what ways the outlook on society of a man and of a woman could diverge? How are they both representing the social classes in England, the relationships between genders, or modernity…? 

In order to attempt answering those questions, Howards End and Emma will be analyzed through different spectrums, each representing a precise social dislocation: first, the dislocation implied by social class. Then, a dislocation relying to gender. Finally, one related to the evolution of relationships and interests in both novels; and last but not least, how these dislocations are linked with England’s realities at the time. 

1. A class dislocation

The interactions between social classes are something recurrent in Emma and Howards End. Through the characters of Leonard Bast in Howards End and Harriet Smith in Emma, the enhancement of the middle class is addressed. Both are coming from lower backgrounds than the main characters. They are arousing benevolence – if not sometimes pity – from the upper classes. Either as in Chapter XV of Howards End where the Schlegel sisters are discussing how they ought to help financially Mr. Bast, or as in Chapter IV of Emma where she’s inciting Harriet not to marry Mr. Martin, the books are showing characters from the upper class in capacity to decide for these characters: “The misfortune of your birth ought to make you particularly careful as to your associates” explains Emma to Harriet on page 28, while Margaret assures that we should “give Mr. Bast money, and don’t bother about his ideals” (p.109). The upper class in Emma and Howards End is shown debating the situation of populations with lower incomes as if it was a leisure for them: Emma is spending her free time matchmaking men and women from Highbury, and Jane Fairfax’s situation is among the most discussed topic of the novel. In Howard End, we can notice a difference with Emma in the character of Miss Avery, a servant. She’s the only character below the middle class presented, while servants don’t have a proper role in Emma.

Social mobility in Emma is emphasized. Whether we think of the Mrs. Weston’s improved status, or to the Coles, outsiders are joining the elitist community of Highbury. This annoys Emma Woodhouse, who intends to show them that – because they’re born of “low origin” – it’s not for them “to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them” (p.203). Proof of this social mobility is as well the Highbury Whist Club, which is composed of “gentlemen and half-gentlemen” (p.182). 

In Howards End, as the novel happens in the center of London – this mobility is more competitive: Mr. Bast remains from the working class – when the Wilcoxes have doubled their fortune since the death of Mrs. Wilcox. Women in the novels seem very compassionate towards the poorer, it is expressed respectively at page 109 of Howards End and through a depiction of Emma’s traits page 94.

All in all, there is a violent difference between the characters’ status in the novels. For the Basts, the Coles or the Bates, their belonging is tied to their relationships to the higher families. Finally, even though Emma or the Schlegel sisters appear to not judge people on their social classes, they can’t help but express contempt about people inferior to them: Emma feels she needs to “improve” Harriet (p.21) and despises Mr. Martin – a farmer, while Helen Schlegel mocks Mr. Bast for his damaged umbrella.

2. A gender dislocation

Whether it be during the 19th century or 20th century, women’s status was starting to change – and even more during Forster’s time since women started to be given the right to vote in England starting from 1918. There was a decline of the “Manly man”: in Emma, Mr. Knightley is appreciated because of his virile manners, when Mr. Wilcox – a century later – is seen presumptuous because of those same manners. We can feel a change in how both authors have been expressing masculinity – also with the character of Tibby, said to be “effeminate”, and belonging to a mostly “feminine house”. 

The gender dislocation can also be remarked through the financial situation of women. Jane Austen addressed this with both financially independent women like Emma and some others with uncertain financial fates such as Harriet Smith or Jane Fairfax. For those, marriage appears as a necessity, while for Emma, it is only a choice. This contrast between them is reinforced since their financial situation is determining how they ought to be considered in society – at the exception of Jane Fairfax, while her cultural capabilities are making her superior. 

Mrs. Bates for instance is said by Mr. Knightley to be “poor” (p. 324) and that because of that she will “sink” more and more. It seems to be a fatality. For E.M Forster, the situation is different as women have a more secured financial situation, while the Married Women’s Property Act have been passed. Thus, Margaret Schlegel is more interested in finding a husband she could love, rather than one that could support her financially. 

However, both novels are dislocating men and women by establishing social norms each sex seems aware of. In Howards End, what women ought to do is often addressed, especially by Mr. Wilcox – very traditional – who assures page 114: “Miss Schlegel, I will not rush in where your sex has been unable to tread”. In Emma, the restrictions imposed on women are more induced. Emma depends on what men think – especially her father and Mr. Knightley. As Emma lives with her father, she learned to be caring, and she seems to be more a parent to her father than the contrary. 

As for the Schlegels, their education has been mostly conducted by Aunt Juley, and because they are interested in culture, they are less concerned by norms than characters in Emma. Because of their social status and “feminine house”,they are less suffering from patriarchal domination – at least until Margaret marries Mr. Wilcox: Helen is having an illegitimate child, has been travelling solo without anyone’s permission, and is in love with a woman. This is a strong dislocation from the other women of the beginning of the 20th century and it doesn’t seem possible at all at Highbury. Helen Schlegel will say page 94, “I hope that for women too, “not to work” will be soon as shocking as “not to be married”, whereas the worst thing in Highbury would be for a woman to have to work, as are showing the reactions to Jane Fairfax considering to become a governess (p.156).

In fact, the gender dislocation is striking while considering matrimony. Some women are not shown interested by romance, like Emma or Helen for instance – which is a contrast to most women of the time, often less privileged. Margaret on the contrary, in chapter XXII, seems to be only motivated by the feelings Mr. Wilcox might develop for her. This is interesting in light of the Bechdel test, elaborated at the end of the 20th century, since thanks to Emma and Helen, less concerned by men, the two novels would probably pass it. Emma in chapter X clearly explains to Harriet that she doesn’t intend to marry at all. This seems to be a strong difference with female characters like Harriet, who needs to marry and are driven by their love interests. 

To top it all, there’s a geographical gender dislocation which is shown by the number of scenes in drawing rooms (p.293 for instance) in Emma, which shows how women were still, in general, exempted from the center of attention and from the serious conversations men were having. To resume from Emma’s page 247: “Each gentleman thought to himself, ‘women will have their little nonsenses and needless cares’”.

3. A dislocation of relationships and interests

Social changes in Emma and Howards End are also reflected through the evolutions of the relationships and the interests of the characters. Mrs. Munt at the very beginning on page 15 shows how hostile the Schlegel are to the Wilcox by saying: “My time’s of value, though yours mayn’t be” to Charles Wilcox. However, this hostility is becoming less and less pregnant especially since Margaret Schlegel marries Henry Wilcox. This marks a profound social change between what was thought at first of the Wilcox – who have “their hands on the ropes” of business. Only Helen Schlegel keeps this hostility until the very last pages of the book. 

An evolution of the relationships is also to be seen with Emma, especially with the relationship between her and Harriet Smith – very indispensable at the beginning, with whom she became less acquainted. This dislocation works as well with love interests: Emma loves F. Churchill (« no doubt of her being in love », Chapter XIII), then she realizes her feelings for G. Wilcox in the third part of the book, after being proposed at the very beginning by Mr. Elton. Same with Harriet, who develops several love interests. Helen Schlegel as well has developed feelings for several people, showing how ephemeral relationships in the upper class are: first Paul Wilcox, then Leonard Bast and finally a woman. 

But the relationships between the characters are also altering the personalities of the characters: Emma becomes less selfish and more understanding because of the mistakes she made with Harriet, while Margaret’s marriage made her more and more rational, in contrast to the rest of her family. With this, the concerns of the characters also brutally change. We see Margaret not caring at all about houses, to be then pretty worried about the Schlegels having to leave theirs. In the same way, her interest for helping the poor and especially Leonard Bast decreases, until the point she becomes even ready to behave like her husband, after the wedding of Evie. 

As for Emma, she was interested in making matches among the people of Highbury and this concern became less important, while Emma rather spent time organizing social activities (balls, dinners…) Both the changes of interests of Margaret and Emma, and their personal improvement, could be understood as the criteria of a bildungsroman. Though the changes in a bildungsroman are often progressive, here they are often imposed violently on the characters after a change in their social situation (marriage being one).

Finally, the decision Jane Austen and E.M Forster made through Harriet and Leonard, to include people from the middle class, is also in itself a social dislocation linked to relationships. Those characters are breaking the glass ceiling by having intimate ties with people from different social classes than theirs. Leonard Bast’s and Helen Schlegel’s baby is another proof of that dislocation, destabilizing the distinction between the different social classes.

4. A social dislocation impacted by different England’s realities

Explaining these multiple social dislocations present in both novels can only be possible while considering the context in which they were written. Emma for instance mentions the “Irish Question”, which was then very actual. Also, itwas written before the law on women’s property, thus there’s a strong emphasis on marriage because then, social mobility for women was only possible through this mean. As for Howards End, the intrigue relies on property – Margaret being supposed to be given Howards End – because of these new rights for women. Both novels are strongly tied with the social realities of their time in England. Emma is “clever, pretty and rich” which allows her to be independent contrary to poorer women, before the Married Women’s Property Act happened. This inequality was a reality for English women at the time. 

In Howards End, this link with England’s reality is even more relevant when we think of modernity: London is changing, growing rapidly. This is reinforced by the third part of this essay; the quick evolution of relationships and the multiple relocations of the characters enhance how fast life is changing in England, dislocating itself from the old one. People from the upper class are now using automobiles and devoting more and more time to work, as proves Mr. Wilcox, which motto is “concentrate” (p.160). 

This could also explain why Howards End is so important for the characters – as this house is the only thing left of the “old world”, one of the last things that hasn’t suffered modernity yet. It enabled the characters to escape London’s modernity. If we compare this situation with Emma, we can only notice how quickly Mr. Knightley decides to leave his house to live at Emma’s. This difference is probably because modernity in the 20th century was linked to social questions, such as Women’s rights or socialism, which were announcing less privileges for the upper class. If Mr. Knightley doesn’t care about his property as Margaret Schlegel do, it’s probably because Howards End depicts an era where privileges for the upper class were declining – especially while the middle class was becoming more and more prominent. 

If we think of marriage again, we see that it’s in Emma more important than it is in Howards End, while this was very decisive at the time Jane Austen wrote. Both novels could be considered as the “condition of England novel”. They both include heavy descriptions of landscapes, of relationships and the tensions related to them. 

In that sense, it is striking that Charles Wilcox is tried for Leonard Bast’s death – which symbolically diminishes the injustice between the rich and the poor – and that the latter died among books – representing a cultural privilege. This confirms that the upper class’s superiority was questioned at the beginning of the 20th century because of some people – decades before – like Harriet Smith, managed to attain the top of society, without being born privileged. This led to a new social class in Emma – not poor, not rich – and to a social dislocation, from which the consequences are to be observed on Howards End. Thanks to the two novels, we can observe the social evolution from the 19th to the 20th century in England.


In the end, the dislocations depicted in Howards End and Emma are responsible of profound social changes in England. Impregnated by the issues of the times they were written at, the novels are questioning those and trying to understand them. This reminds us of Helen Schlegel’s dilemma in Howards End, where she wonders whether she shall “see life steadily or seeing it whole”. Either Jane Austen or E.M Forster could have ignored the social disparities they’ve known in the 19th and 20th century. However, they decided with those novels to examine the dangerous evolutions of their society. While Austen emphasizes the arrival of the middle class and the necessity to have money in order to be socially acknowledged, Forster reflects on the urban development of London and how it marked the end of ideals such as the ones the Schlegels are embodying. Since these violent social changes impacted both writers, they had to impact their characters as well, and their condition.

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