Persuasions #12, 1990                                                                                                                                            Pages 54-59


Austen, Forster, and Economics



Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ


Critics have often drawn a line of descent from Jane Austen to E.M. Forster, noting particularly Austen’s influence on Forster in terms of narrative technique and the use of comedy.  They note that Forster like Austen tends to use the third person omniscient narrator and take an “Austen position of middle distance” (VanDeVyvere 206) in his narratives.  Forster acknowledged Samuel Butler, Jane Austen, and Marcel Proust as strategic in his development as a writer (Bradbury 2) and said that from Austen, in particular, he was taught “the possibilities of domestic comedy” (Colmer 18).  In mastering this “domestic comedy,” Forster benefited from Austen’s creation of “round” characters that move beyond a narrow “two-dimensional” sphere:


All the Jane Austen characters are ready for an extended life which the schemes of her books seldom require them to lead, and that is why they lead their actual lives so satisfactorily...  She may label her characters  ‘Sense’, ‘Pride’, ‘Sensibility’, ‘Prejudice’, but they are not tethered to those qualities.

(Aspects of the Novel 53)


In terms of theme and vision, however, critics point to a sharp divergence between Austen and Forster.  E.D.H. Johnson compares Emma, Middlemarch, and Howards End through a discussion of the characters’ relationship to the landscape; he sees the heroine move from an ordered, restricted landscape in Emma to broader vistas in Middlemarch and Howards End, corresponding to the heroine’s larger vision of selfhood.  Andrew Wright compares Emma and Howards End in a chapter entitled “The Emergent Woman”; he finds that although Emma’s life by the end of the story is ordered and “perfect,” it is still constraining and narrow; Margaret’s life although allowing more chaos is also more free and laden with opportunities denied to Emma.  In a similar vein, Virginia Woolf felt that Austen was bound by “some unnatural convention” which resulted in “too little of the rebel in her composition, too little discontent” (Critical Heritage 241).  Forster himself pointed to a tendency in Austen as well as other great English novelists to be entrapped in “provincialism” unlike novelists like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Proust (Aspects of the Novel 130) and felt that he was more “ambitious” in his own writing.

Although their worlds are seemingly widely diverse, W.H. Auden points to the possibility that there may be more linking Austen and Forster thematically than first appears.  Presumably Austen was recommended to the “shell-shocked” for her soothing effect, but Auden finds her viewpoint to be anything but calm.  In his “Letter to Lord Byron” he addresses Byron and writes:


She was not an unshockable blue stocking,

If shades remain the characters they were,

No doubt she still considers you as shocking.

But tell Jane Austen, that is, if you dare

How much her novels are beloved down here.

She wrote them for posterity, she said:

‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amourous effects of ‘brass’,

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety,

The economic basis of society.   (Critical Heritage 299)


Auden’s reference to the “economic basis of society” that he sees manifested in Austen’s novels provides the thematic thread to Forster that is sometimes overlooked.  Although on the surface Austen’s society seems stable and connected, on a deeper level it is profoundly disconnected – the social order in her novels which reassures us was in a diseased state when she depicted it and the seeds of that sickness grow into full bloom in the society that Forster writes about.  Wright observes that “Austen is writing in a society that pretends not to be materialistic though it is centrally so; that fact of buying and selling may be concealed … within dead or moribund metaphors, but the fact remains” (51) and the only thing that seems to have changed in the time between Austen and Forster is the legitimization of greed through the terms of “commerce” and “imperialism.”  The “communal sentiment” in Austen’s novels has given in to a “cynical disregard for others in the fragmented society epitomized by the Wilcoxes,” according to Johnson, but on a deeper examination we can determine that the structure of society was already beginning to crack in Austen’s time.

There are a number of superficial resemblances between Austen’s “country gentry” and Forster’s “urban bourgeois high culture” (Wright 5) in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Forster’s Howards End, particularly between the Dashwood and Schlegel sisters.  Both sets of sisters have a passionate regard for one another and possess as Elinor so succinctly states “delicacy … rectitude, and integrity of mind” (127).  All four are eager to improve their knowledge of the arts and life; both Marianne and Helen are more rash while Elinor and Margaret are more pragmatic.  But a more relevant comparison arises between the two novels through what Samuel Hynes calls the struggle “between two antithetical parts of the middle class: the insensitive plutocracy, and the sensitive intelligentsia, those who have molded England, and those who have seen her whole” (ix).  In both Austen and Forster the struggle for ownership of property, of status, and ultimately of England itself is at stake.

Thematically, the point of origin for both novels is the inheritance of a property.  John and Fanny Dashwood, Mrs. Ferrars, and Robert and Lucy Ferrars are the prototypes for the Wilcoxes of Howards End and it is these characters who interestingly enough inherit property, money, and ultimately decision-making status in the novel.  The characteristics common to them all are a willing propensity towards self-delusion, and a compulsion to objectify the land and other people to fit a script of “win or lose,” “buy or sell” which spells the death of the power of the pastoral and of what Forster termed “personal relations” (Howards End 28).

John and Fanny Dashwood view both their personal relationships and their inheritance of Norland in terms of economic and social assets or debits.  The primary aim in their relationship to the Dashwood sisters is to avoid any monetary assistance to them.  John urges his sisters to view their acquaintances in terms of prospective earning power; he commends Elinor on her apparent catch of Colonel Brandon who has a good fortune and urges her to pursue her relationship with Mrs. Jennings since “it is an acquaintance that has not only been of great use to you hitherto, but in the end may prove materially advantageous” (226).

This emphasis on the “materially advantageous” to the bankruptcy of beauty and imagination is apparent in John and Fanny’s view of Norland.  Elinor is far from being a romantic in her appreciation of Norland; in fact, she mocks her sister for her “passion for dead leaves” when Marianne bewails that John and Fanny are unable to appreciate autumn at Norland.  Elinor is disquieted, however, at John and Fanny’s crass view of improving their asset; John tells her that they are building a greenhouse and that “the old walnut trees are all come down to make room for it.  It will be a very fine object from many parts of the park, and the flower-garden will slope down just before it, and be exceedingly pretty.  We have cleared away all the old thorns that grew in patches over the brow” (226).  The narrator tells us that Elinor “kept her concern and censure to herself, and was very thankful that Marianne was not present to share the provocation” (226).

Just as John and Fanny inherit Norland, Robert and Lucy Ferrars come into their inheritance and claim both Mrs. Ferrars’ money and their place in society.  Although temporarily out of favor for marrying Lucy, in time Robert is “re-established … completely” (376) in the favor of his mother and is being groomed for a position in Parliament.  The advantage of the Dashwood sisters and their spouses, of course, is that they possess warm “personal relations” and a real connection to the land and each other.  Although they can connect with each other they cannot with their ill-mannered brother or rude sister-in-law, and so they retreat to form a separate domestic bliss at Delaford.  Although Norland has been taken they can still retreat, make room for themselves, and society can “accommodate” both those at Delaford and those at Norland.  They live happy but passive lives while their relatives inherit property, and, ultimately more than property: a shaping influence in the world.

Beerbolm's Forter

The characteristics of Robert and Lucy Ferrars and John and Fanny Dashwood are similar to those of the Wilcoxes in Howards End; they are self-assured, action-oriented, sometimes vain, often trivial, and almost always frightened of the unseen or abstract.  Mrs. Wilcox, the prevalent spirit of the story, bequeathes Howards End to Margaret because her family cannot view it except in terms of money and improvement; they tear down the paddock to build the garage and she knows that they will never see the land as a place in which “had lived an elder race, to which we look back with disquietude …  In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect – connect without bitterness until all men are brothers” (281).  To the Wilcoxes “Howards End was a house” the narrator informs us, but they didn’t realize “that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir” (163).  Ultimately, the narrator decides that the Wilcoxes cannot be excused from tearing up the note bequeathing Howards End to Margaret because “they did neglect a personal appeal.  The woman who had died did say to them: ‘Do this,’ and they answered: ‘We will not’ ” (103).

The Wilcoxes are painfully inadequate and unprepared to deal with a “personal appeal” or relationships at all: Paul lives in fear of his family finding out about his impulsive emotional reaction to Helen; Charles gives his wife “all his affection” but only half his attention; the Wilcoxes, after Mrs. Wilcox’s death, live as far away from each other as possible; and Henry justifies his own past relationship with Jacky Bast while condemning Helen’s with Leonard.  Margaret views Henry’s lack of connection with the pastoral and people as an opportunity to


help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion ….  Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon.  Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  (195)


The narrator calmly tells us that to Margaret “it did not seem so difficult” and then just as calmly informs us that “she failed” (195).

Margaret fails because she both underestimates the range of Henry’s “obtuseness” and the direction of the culture she lives in.  The passivity and accommodation of the sensitive and intelligent in Sense and Sensibility has given rise not to the meek taking over the world but to a people who so disvalue the past, the land, and the internal that even the memory of these things is being erased from the earth.  The Dashwoods and Schlegels have no way to turn their private ideals into public norms and this is their ultimate undoing.  Forster commented that he believed in an “aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky” and because of these qualities life “cannot be dismissed as a failure.  But it may well be hailed as a tragedy, the tragedy being that no device has been found by which these private decencies can be transmitted to public affairs” (Two Cheers for Democracy 71).  The narrator issues an almost identical statement of this kind about the Schlegels:  “In their own fashion they cared deeply about politics, though not as politicians would have us care; they desired that public life should mirror whatever is good in the life within.”  Wilfred Stone comments that “Schlegelian liberalism … becomes more of an esthetic than a political attitude, lapsing into a quiescent faith that somehow private good will radiate into the body politic” (242).

This private good will, however, is not powerful enough to convert the Wilcoxes to the truth of connection nor is it sufficient to stop the growing rootlessness of society.  The narrator says that:


London was a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before.  Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth.  Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised must be entrusted to love alone.  (272)


Perhaps even love itself is not sufficient to ensure the survival of the personal with the stress of “nomadic civilization” that undermines human nature and the ability to see life “whole and steadily.”

The Schlegels’ triumph in gaining Howards End, if indeed it is one, is strained.  Wright’s description of Forster’s euphoria in “his revelation … that intelligence is strong enough, that personal relations can endure, that culture can survive the collision with the anarchy of panic and emptiness, that love can succeed” seems to ignore Henry’s reduction to child-like dependency, Leonard’s death, Helen’s emotional frigidity, Tibby’s obsessive self-involvement, and the “red rust” of suburbia.  The characters retreat to Howards End and here Hynes comments that for the Schlegels “neither the inner life nor the outer life, nor any connection of the two, seems to have paid off: Forster had simply withdrawn his characters into Hertfordshire, to watch the haying and approaching suburbs” (xii).  Unlike the Dashwoods at Delaford, the Schlegels realize the transitoriness of Howards End and what it represents; in their failure to connect, the question of who shall inherit England appears to be rhetorical.  Although Margaret hopes for “a civilization that won’t be a movement because it will rest on the earth,” she admits that “all the signs are against it” and Helen “pointed over the meadow – over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust” (355).

Auden said that Austen wrote her novels “to be read by posterity” and, perhaps, to be judged by it also.  The line of descent of Austen to Forster exceeds the use of narrative technique and genre and penetrates to their presentation of society; both display a world in which the “sensitive and the plucky” are discounted and in which the possibility of connection between opposites is remote.  When one reads Sense and Sensibility in light of Howards End it is impossible to interpret its calmness and order in quite the same way as before – somehow the goblins that Helen hears in Beethoven’s Fifth seem to have crept in.





Austen, Jane.  Sense and Sensibility, ed. R.W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).


Auden, W. H.  “Letter to Lord Byron,” Letters from Iceland, 1937, in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage Volume II, ed. B.C. Southam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987).


Bradbury, Malcolm.  Introduction. Forster: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966).


Colmer, John.  E.M. Forster the Personal Voice (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975).


Forster, E.M.  Abinger Harvest (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936).


______.  Aspects of the Novel, 1927 (London: Arnold Publishers, 1974).  Volume 12 of the Abinger Edition of E.M. Forster, ed. Oliver Stallybrass.


______.  Howards End (New York: Vintage International Edition, Random House, 1989).


______.  Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951 (London: Arnold Publishers, 1972). Volume 11 of the Abinger Edition of E.M. Forster, ed. Oliver Stallybrass.


Hynes, Samuel.  Introduction.  Howards End, by E.M. Forster (New York: Bantam, 1985), v-xiii.


Jarret-Kerr, Martin. Letter to the Times Literary Supplement, 3 Feb. 1984, in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage Volume II, ed. B.C. Southam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987).


Johnson, E.D.H.  “ ‘The Truer Measure’: Setting in Emma, Middlemarch, and Howards End.”  Romantic and Modern Revaluations of Literary Tradition, ed. George Bornstein (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977).


Stone, Wilfred.  The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E.M. Forster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966).


VanDeVyvere, J.L.  “The Mediatorial Voice of the Narrator in E.M. Forster’s Howards End” Journal of Narrative Technique, VI, 1976, 204-16.


Woolf, Virginia.  Review of Life and Letters and Old Friends and New Faces by Sybil Brinton.  Times Literary Supplement, 8 May 1913, in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage Volume II, ed. B.C. Southam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987).


Wright, Andrew.  Fictional Discourse and Historical Space, (London: Macmillan Press, 1987).

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