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.

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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.

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.

"Dear, dear Norland! When Shall I cease to regret you!"
(Lilly Library, Indiana University/Wikimedia Commons)

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.

As for Marianne’s mysterious late-in-the-game illness, it also contains curious echoes of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith never can decide how one should feel about the pursuit of wealth. On the one hand, it keeps in motion the industry of mankind. On the other, it doesn’t make people very happy. So how is the individual character—after all, the subject of a treatise on ethical conduct—to treat wealth?

Smith resolves not to resolve on anything. He encourages his readers to take a “complex” view of wealth. While nature imposes on our sympathies and senses most of the time, we know what it is like not to be fooled. Smith urges us to remember those times of “splenetic humor”—illness, usually—when we fail to appreciate beauty, utility, “that accommodation which reigns in the palaces and oeconomy of the great.” In sickness, we “consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording” and find wealth “in the highest degree contemptible and trifling.”

This isn’t a prescription for lifelong malingering. It’s a reminder instead to maintain an attitude of ambiguity towards wealth even when one’s full sympathetic and aesthetic faculties are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. After all, without Marianne’s earlier self-deception, there wouldn’t be much of a novel. (Elinor and Edward are clearly not emo enough to sustain three volumes of agony, even with the Lucy Steele complication lurking.) Literature is generated in the end by someone’s failure to recognize nature’s deception, just as Adam Smith promised.

* * *

We’ll never know how Austen really felt about the very small fortune that she made from the books that were published in her lifetime, or the labors that produced them. But despite her family’s best efforts to represent her as a talented amateur after her death, the fact was that she was up at her desk as early as Marianne, writing and revising early in the morning, as she knew that other tasks would occupy her later in the day. Her struggles will sound remarkably familiar to anyone who earns a living by her pen. “I am not at all in a humour for writing, I must write on till I am,” she told Cassandra in a letter.

As an academic who studies 18th-century political economy and philosophy, the apparently infinite adaptability of an Austen novel has always struck me as something of a mystery. Sense and Sensibility is the greatest mystery of all: Its ambiguity about the pursuit of wealth and the terms in which this is constructed seem ultimately untranslatable without the History of Economics 101.

But perhaps it is fortune hunting in our modern meaning of that word which restores some of our ambivalence and interest in the inner moral lives of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Why don’t they just go out and get jobs, instead of looking for rich men, after all? Earning a fortune might no longer trigger our collective gag reflex, but marrying one? That still generates plenty of squeamish plot.