The Economics of Jane Austen

In her fiction, the 18th-century novelist wrestled with the same question that preoccupied Adam Smith: Does the pursuit of wealth diminish a person's moral integrity?
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When Jane Austen died in 1817, her reinvention began. Her brother Henry Austen published, as the preface to the posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, a biographical note that praised her modesty and her financial disinterestedness. According to Henry, Jane accounted herself astonished when her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, made her £150. “Few so gifted were so truly unpretending,” Henry tells us. “She regarded the above sum as a prodigious recompense for that which cost her nothing.”

It is in every way a deeply felt, generous obituary, but the self-effacing, even “faultless” Jane character it imagines has more in common with Emma Woodhouse’s altogether-too-perfect bugbear Jane Fairfax than it does with the author who complained in a letter to a friend that she would have really preferred a bigger advance than the £110 she received for Pride and Prejudice.

It’s no great secret that Austen’s novels are fascinated with the microeconomics of the “three or four families in a country village” that she made her lifelong theme. These days, however, we tend to slap Twilight-style romance covers on them and try to forget that her most charming heroines are actually fortune hunters.

I will pause for a moment as a thousand Janeites around the world cry out in unison. But to resume: The likeable and impecunious Bennet girls, the disinherited Dashwood daughters, and even gentle Anne Elliott are by any standard, contemporary or Georgian, truffling for funds. This was the occupation of a gentleman’s daughter in the late 18th century.

Austen, too, was a fortune hunter, after a fashion. Like any author, she wrote for many reasons—personal artistic expression, to entertain herself and her beloved sister Cassandra, to comment on the world around her in the guise of mere stories—but also for money. She made efforts to get herself a publisher, and did.

As brother Henry’s whitewashing suggests, this was not an uncontroversial activity, especially for a gentleman’s daughter. When Jane Austen was born in 1775, the Industrial Revolution was in the first blush of youth and the pursuit of commercial self-interest—at least partially normalized now—was still regarded with the suspicious eye of centuries’ worth of Christian paeans to poverty and aristocratic snobbery about trade, finance, and any form of non-inherited wealth.

* * *

Austen was a year old when the modern science of economics was invented. Adam Smith, Jane’s neighbor to the north in Scotland, published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, commonly known today by its pithier final four words. Its most famous line is the rallying banner for free marketeers even in 2014, a winning defense of the power and driving force of the very commercial self-interest that the established churches of Europe derided: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from regard to their self interest.”

Austen—the highly literate daughter of a highly educated parson, well read in that polymath way that seems impossible to us now—probably did not attempt the slog through the two-volume treatise of political economy, or at least no good evidence that she did exists. But Smith’s work was at the cutting edge of liberal opinion, and permeated the culture around it, as much as any bestselling book today. For example, one of the volumes in the Austen family library was Thomas Percival’s A Father’s Instructions: Moral Tales, Fables, and Reflections, a children’s commonplace anthology that proselytized for the new sciences and moral thought of the Enlightenment. A footnote in the reissued 1781 edition points Percival’s younger readers to Smith’s description of the process of making a pin in The Wealth of Nations, the famous demonstration of the division of labor at work. (Yes, indeed: children’s books came with footnotes back then.) Peter Knox-Shaw points out that Catherine Morland’s recitation of the Beggar’s Petition in Northanger Abbey repeats, letter-perfect, the errors that Percival introduced when he reprinted it.

But if any Smith book was likely to have sat on an Austenian side table, it wasn’t The Wealth of Nations, but the work that Smith himself considered foundational, and thus revised a staggering six times over the course of his lifetime, up until the year of his death. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) introduced Smith’s concept of sympathy. This was a word used slightly differently in Smith’s time than in our own, and doesn’t have much to do with the modern tendency to click like on a Facebook friend’s engagement announcement to show our support, or to feel terrible about the plight of child soldiers. It referred instead to the mortar of civilized society, the way that we modify our behavior as we come to an understanding of how others see us and realize that they cannot regard our problems in the same close and passionate way that we do.

Smith, who sought to reconcile a kind of genial 18th-century deism with the precepts of the established Churches of Scotland and England, summarized the matter thus: “As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbor, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor is capable of loving us.” We might, if we listen closely, hear a slight echo in bookish Mr. Bennet’s philosophy: “For what do we live for but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

But for all of the strides Smith made toward reconciliation, he never quite came to a conclusion about whether a rich man could get into heaven, or even be happy on earth. The ambiguity is more apparent in The Theory of Moral Sentiments than it is in The Wealth of Nations; the latter makes the operation of the invisible hand its subject, but the former inquires about its origins.

Smith turns out to be less than enamored with those origins. In one of the many cases where “sympathy”—so connotatively positive now—is as dangerous as it is necessary, Smith tells us that it is our imaginative sympathies, our way of picturing how much fun it would be to be rich, that do in fact create the wealthy, bustling world around us, but which may deform our moral characters and even our ability to be happy in the process.

Few realize it now, but the first appearance of the invisible hand in Smith’s work occurs in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, not The Wealth of Nations. And that forgetting is part of a radical revision of the way that we tend to regard greed in the modern era.

Greed, for us utilitarian moderns, is dangerous because it prioritizes the individual over the society, accruing benefits to a small number of people at the expense of larger groups. Smith’s concern about wealth and virtue is diametrically opposite. The acquisition of wealth does little good for the individual, but much good for the world around her. To demonstrate, he gives us the parable of the poor man’s son, “whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition,” a man who imagines that it would be a very good thing to have some servants to labor for him, so thus labors his entire life to get some servants, in one of the finest 18th-century examples of economic irony.

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Presented by

Shannon Chamberlain

Shannon Chamberlain is doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. She has written for Slate and Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America. 

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