Adam Smith and the Romance Novel

This apparent hatred for novels is disappointing from a writer who has this to say on the second page of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, practically before he takes on the question of what we feel for so-called “real people”: “Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is not more real than that with their happiness. We enter into their gratitude towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them.”

Here, Smith seems to be telling us what anybody who has fallen a little in love with Colonel Brandon (hey, don’t judge me: see also, Alan Rickman) already knows. Just not about novels, specifically, unless he was using “romance” as a synonym. It is unclear if he is.

Smith’s other comment on novels may suggest that The Theory of Moral Sentiments represented a softening towards the rising genre of his times. This time, it is novels that come out on top and the Greeks who don’t fare so well. The Stoics, Smith says, make the ridiculous claim that one should care about the death of one’s child no more than the death of other citizens. This apathy is “never agreeable, and all of the metaphysical sophisms by which it is supported can seldom serve any other purpose than to blow up the hard insensibility of a coxcomb to ten times its native impertinence.” Tell us what you really think, Adam. He does. “The poets and romance writers, who best paint the refinements and delicacies of love and friendship, and of all other private and domestic affections, Racine and Voltaire; Richardson, [Pierre de] Marivaux, and [Marie-Jeanne] Riccoboni; are, in such cases, much better instructors than Zeno, Chryssipus, or Epictetus.”

Richardson, Marivaux, and Riccoboni were all novelists, the latter two writing in French. The strange thing about this reversal, at least in the case of Richardson, is that his works are not exactly brimming with stunning examples of parental or familial affection, to which this entire section of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is devoted. Smith, ever keen to delineate the precise shades of human behavior, allows that a general on the edge of a war might not display the greatest propriety by being seen to mourn immoderately for a child, but that people in private life are more than allowed to openly prefer their own children to the children of others. Nature practically demands it.

However, in Richardson’s novels parents are not terribly important. In Pamela, they are mostly off-stage conduits into which Pamela can pour her many sorrows. And when they do appear, as in Clarissa, they do not come off well. Not only are Clarissa’s parents, very much in private life and not at the head of any armies, unwilling to put the interests of their child above other children: They are not willing to put the interests of their child above their own. Their goal is to buy their way into the aristocratic class just above them. Their ambitions at first settle on their two older children, but alas for their third child, Clarissa, she inherits a fortune from her doting grandfather. This makes her the more suitable prey for a rake called Lovelace, an earl’s son.

As will occasionally happen in the 18th century, Lovelace kidnaps and imprisons in a brothel the reluctant Clarissa, who will marry none of the suitors whom her family has selected for her, having seen through all of their aristocratic trappings. Nobody in the family seems deeply concerned about this turn of events, apart from a distant relative who will, in the novel’s denouement, fight Lovelace to the death, albeit well past the point when this action will do the already-dead Clarissa any good.

Where is the grief for a child here, the intense sympathy for a young woman in a terrible situation? For that matter, her parents don’t even seem particularly concerned about the family’s reputation. It is as if in their aspiration to aristocracy, they have already absorbed the lackadaisical sexual values that Richardson and other middle-class literary figures saw as in need of reform. It is only Clarissa who fervently (and at great length) articulates the combination of familial duty, sexual purity until marriage, and proto-feminist assertion of the importance of her own choices in betrothal that were increasingly coming to define middle class morality.

Readers cared about her, even if her family did not. Even in these days of mega-bestsellers, it’s hard to overestimate the cultural impact of Richardson. Pamela and Clarissa were adapted several times for the theater, put in paintings and on hand fans, fetishized and written to as if they were actual people. Modern fan-fiction has nothing on the 18th-century version of itself. When readers learned that Clarissa dies of her exhaustion, they wrote indignant letters to Richardson. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle with his great detective, however, Richardson had no trick up his sleeve for bringing her back. As he explained, his entire purpose was to write against the thesis that a “reformed rake makes the best husband.” And since Lovelace raped Clarissa, it wasn’t as if she could marry someone else.

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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