Adam Smith and the Romance Novel

The 18th-century economist's works had a lot in common with the popular fiction of his time, even if he professed to disdain it.

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.

* * *

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.”

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.

* * *

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith comments extensively on social classes and the conflicts between them, usually in service of articulating a middle way. He is often a realist, and he might as well be talking about Lovelace when he writes that “the disorder and extravagance of several years … will not always ruin a man of fashion, and people of that rank are very apt to consider the power of indulging in some degree of excess as one of the advantages of their fortune, and the liberty of doing so without censure or reproach, as one of the privileges which belong to their station.”

On the other hand, strict religious observance belongs to the lower classes, who, in their country villages, have their moral conduct “attended to” by all of their compatriots.

Clarissa and even former servant girl Pamela seem to represent instead a compromise position, the one that Smith articulates for the “distinguished member of a great society, who attend to every part of his conduct, and who thereby oblige him to attend to every part of it himself.” It is the opinions of this great society that Smith alludes to when he carves out a middle way for people who want rank and fortune but also do not want to entirely abandon the gentler, less profligate morals of the country villages from whence they come. Richardson even wrote a sequel called Pamela in Her Exalted Condition to make this very point.

Smith, it is true, writes primarily for men, although there are moments when he displays plenty of sympathy for women. But Clarissa is nothing if not a delightful compromise between having money and acting as if one was still under the scrutiny of country villagers. That Lovelace largely escapes society’s censure but not his own personal regrets about what he did to Clarissa is the ultimate sign of Clarissa’s triumph and a moral universe that is transforming itself slowly, even if neither one of them makes it out alive.

But in these mid-century novels, it is still unclear whether the good bourgeois values will prevail over the bad aristocratic ones, whether it is possible to live ethically in a high station. By the time Jane Austen writes her final, unfinished novel Sanditon, in 1817, the triumph of the latter over the former is so complete (at least in literature) that Lovelace’s aristocratic profligacy has become the punchline to a joke about how a simple baronet just can’t afford to go imprisoning ladies in secluded country houses anymore.

But Smith’s work itself comes at the moment of conflict, in fiction and otherwise. His entire position on the pursuit of wealth in commercial society is a compromise: New fortunes should be defended because they seem to benefit society broadly, even if they deform individuals considerably. And this does not merely apply to the individuals in pursuit of the fortune. In The Wealth of Nations, he defends the need for public education because the division of labor’s repetitive manual tasks will likely turn the people who do them into mental sluggards.

And it is by no means clear that the middle-class virtues of prudence, justice, self-command, and benevolence will triumph when Smith writes, just as they triumph only ambiguously Clarissa. (Although perhaps that book’s success had something to do with changing hearts and minds, as did Smith’s work.) The rise of the newly literate commercial middle class was a new and possibly temporary phenomenon, one which writers and philosophers that were trying to both understand and preserve.

Perhaps this sense of turmoil, of progress that could still be undone, explains Smith’s apparent ambiguity about novels. What Smith likes about history is that we can read knowing that the events turned out the way that they did and attend instead to their literary beauties. But the outcome to the struggles he so cared about had yet to be written. Real life offered plenty of suspense for Smith; why pile on with novels?