I recently argued here at The Atlantic that Jane Austen was a reader of the works of the economist and political philosopher Adam Smith, and that Smith’s ideas about wealth and virtue in particular influenced the plot of Sense and Sensibility.
Is the reverse true? Did Smith read Austen? Alas—for the history of economics—no. He was long dead by 1811, when Austen’s work first saw the light of day.
But there’s a related, tantalizing possibility: that Smith’s ideas about the compatibility of wealth and virtue were influenced by Austen’s predecessors in the novel—that the fiction of his times shaped his view of subjects like the interaction between the classes, sexual morals, and the economics of inheritance. To fully grasp the moral universe of The Wealth of Nations, you might want to crack open an 18th-century novel.
It would be surprising, in fact, if Smith hadn’t done just that from time to time. The novel was the up-and-coming genre in his youth. The cultural ubiquity of the novel in our age makes it hard to remember, first, that it is a genre and not just a word for any narrative (despite what the youth of America seem to think), and second, that it had or ever needed a rise. But rise it did, in the 1730s and ‘40s.
The seminal literary historian Ian Watt was one of the first to study the phenomenon, and to link the rise of the novel to the simultaneous rise of the middle class and of middle class literacy. This new class, accustomed to the typical literary division between tragic aristocrats and royalty on the one hand and comic, lower class characters on the other, needed a place to read about itself, and to see its own values reflected well. They also suddenly had cash, which makes such desires relevant.
The productions that were called novels in the early-18th century were essentially tabloidized versions of the goings on in royal places. Their titles tell you more or less all you need to know about them: Letters From a Nobleman to His Sister (they’re close), The Mercenary Lover, The Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes. But a large part of the pleasure of such novels was not in seeing real life sketched in the form of fictional persons. It was figuring out if Countess Vanity-in-her-Wardrobe was meant to stand in allegorically for, say, the opposition leader in Parliament, or refer to some highborn member of the queen’s household.
But in the 1740s, long fictional prose narratives that had previously concerned themselves with aristocrats became … a little less about aristocrats. Starting with Daniel Defoe and really taking off with Samuel Richardson, novels centered on the conflict between politically connected aristocrats and the members of the classes below them.
In Richardson’s extraordinary popular debut, Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, a ladies’ maid resists the seductions of her boss so effectively that he marries her. Things take a more tragic turn for the eponymous heroine of Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady, a woman of the Austenesque gentry class who has the misfortune to run into a degenerate lordling who will feel very bad about himself after he rapes her and drives her to one of those shockingly common stress deaths of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The highborn ladies of the previous nouvelles scandaleuses (we say it in French when sturdy middle-class English won’t do) are often already married, so courtship is really not the point of those novels. The “romance” of the early romance novel is purely in the imagining of oneself enjoying the things that Adam Smith alluded to in his first description of the invisible hand in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: the palaces and equipages of the rich and splendid. It may also lie in the realization that even people who occupy those high states can be unhappy and comically ridiculous, even in the throes of our envy of them.
But with Richardson’s novels, the question of courtship and the ethics of the pursuit of money came under the fiction’s scrutiny, just as they came under Smith’s eye in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. It’s not the aristocracy that Smith addresses when he talks about the proper attitude towards getting money: They already had it, after all. It’s to that same middle class that was reading Richardson’s tales of aspiring women.
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Smith, who lived a rather isolated and monkish life as a bachelor professor, left behind only a few explicit references to novels and what he saw as their moral and literary function.
One is in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. These actually are lectures, transcribed by two of Smith’s students and rediscovered in an Aberdeenshire attic in 1961. So caveats about transmission down the centuries may apply. Still, they are a rare opportunity to see in a less formal context an author who was cautious enough about his public image to insist that most of his papers be burned after his death.
The news for fans of the romance novel is mixed.
In a section on the effective writing of historical narratives, Smith casually delivers this blow, almost as an afterthought: “As newness is the only merit in a Novel and curiosity the only motive which induces us to read them,” writers make ample use of surprise and suspense to keep readers “counting pages” between their bookmark and the back cover. This is by way of contrast to the best historians, usually classical Greek and Roman. We already know the outcome of the Punic Wars, so we can attend to the beauty of the prose that describes them. Most importantly, we can really feel for characters when we are focused not on what is happening to them, but how it is happening: “The ancients carry us as it were into the very circumstances of the actors, we feel for them as if it were for ourselves.”