This story is a tragedy. “Through the whole of his life [the poor man’s son] pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repos which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it.”
Smith doesn’t begin to sound like we think Smith should until the next paragraph, when the worm finally turns. “It is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner,” he says, because it is only our self-delusion that it is better to be rich that “rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.” This deception farms the fields, builds the cities, creates the surplus that enables the existence of art and literature, something higher than the hardscrabble for mere existence.
And it is does not simply accrue to the people who falsely believe that they will be happier once they are richer. “The rich,” Smith points out, “only select from the heap what is most precious. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.” The rich, in getting rich, hurt themselves and help others, individual salvation be (literally) damned.
We can quibble with the truth of this formulation, but there is no doubting that it represented the best of liberal, au courant thought in Austen’s young adulthood. And it is this argument about the relationship between wealth and virtue—the regrettable way that we seek what we already had to begin with, to our great mental and moral harm—that manifests itself particularly in Sense and Sensibility.
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One of the problems of any adaptation that moves Sense and Sensibility forward in time is Marianne Dashwood’s illness. Germ theory tends to get in the way of the story here; young ladies do not get a fever because their hearts are broken by cads, generally speaking. And then there’s the problem of what this episode is even doing for the plot, other than to allow Colonel Brandon to go fetch Mrs. Dashwood as a sign of his devotion: an anomalous contrivance in an author who Walter Scott commends for a “truth in painting” the scenes of ordinary life. Marianne’s sudden fever makes perfect sense, however, when we see it in the light of Smith’s ambiguities about the acquisition of wealth and its impact on personal happiness.
To understand it, we must go back to a certain financial equation set up earlier in the text, in the middle of a seemingly innocuous conversation between the Dashwoods and Edward Ferrars. Edward is a rich man’s son visited with no ambition whatsoever, whose “wishes are all moderate.”
Marianne, the Henry Austen of the moment, takes great offense when her sister Elinor points out that fame of the kind that Edward’s family seeks for him might have little to do with happiness. Wealth, on the other hand, is always useful. “For shame!” scolds Marianne.
But it turns out that Elinor’s idea of “wealth” differs substantially from her sister’s. When Elinor asks Marianne what her idea of a subsistence-level “competence” is, it turns out that it is nearly double what Elinor would consider gross wealth. “And yet two thousand a year is a very moderate income,” she says. “A family cannot well be attained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.”
Two thousand pounds a year in late-18th-century Britain was a substantial sum, enough to place a family in what we would now call the one percent. But the real joke of the scene is that Marianne’s pretense to abstract reasoning about the moderate amount of wealth that will make her happy is highly imaginatively specific. The word “hunters” is the clue. She isn’t theorizing about what will make her happy; she’s imagining her establishment with her love interest, John Willoughby, once they are married. Willloughby is a consummate hunter, and when Edward points out that hunters are a bit of a luxury and not everyone hunts, Marianne “colours” and replies that “most people do.”
Marianne, alas, does not get her hunters. This is one of the ways in which Sense and Sensibility differs from Pride and Prejudice. Jane and Elizabeth Bennet don’t really compromise in their happily ever afters. They don’t have to trade wealth for happiness, despite Elizabeth’s occasional pert speech to Charlotte Lucas that she won’t simply marry anyone for the sake of keeping Mrs. Bennet off a cat food diet in her senior citizenhood. (Who would?) These little tirades preserve our affection for Elizabeth, although the fact that she doesn’t have to follow through on these severe principles is what we tend to forget. But Marianne Dashwood’s attempt to unite fortune and the happiness of a dashing young suitor fail miserably.
Ironically, Marianne does get her two thousand a year. The very sum that she thought necessary to support her gentility is in fact what Colonel Brandon, whom she marries at the end of the novel, brings to the table. The toils and labors she undertakes in the meantime are comparable to those of the poor man’s son in Smith’s parable. When Willoughby jilts her, the feminine art of writing letters of love and reproach to her erstwhile suitor is intensely time-consuming and energy-sapping. Marianne is up “before the house-maid had lit their fire next day,…kneeling against one of the window-seats for the sake of all the little light she could command,….and writing as fast as a continual flow of tears would permit her.” She is at her desk as hard as any bank clerk scrabbling after a fortune in a London counting house, and reading the winds and weather to figure out whether her lover’s lack of an answer has to do with his hunting.
Marianne, at least according to the precepts of the dismal science, has sacrificed the real tranquility that was at all times in her power. Of course, a strictly numerical analysis ignores that she believed herself in love with Willoughby and not with Brandon. The novel gradually reveals the worth of Brandon and the worthlessness of Willoughby, which makes the math even clearer. Arguably, the 18th-century reader would have recognized Willoughby for the shallow playboy he is sooner than Marianne ever did. Samuel Richardson’s Lovelace and a pantheon of earlier smooth-talking men with hunters and sweet promises under their mustaches prepared them for the type.