The Economics Of Jane Austen

August 31, 2014 Nemes Random

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 applauded her modesty and her monetary disinterestedness. According to Henry, Jane accounted herself astonished when her very first released novel, Sense and Sensibility, made her 150. “Few so gifted were so truly unpretending,” Henry tells us. “She related to the above sum as a prodigious remuneration for that which cost her nothing.”

It is in every means a deeply felt, generous obituary, but the self-effacing, even “perfect” Jane character it pictures has more in usual with Emma Woodhouse’s altogether-too-perfect problem Jane Fairfax than it finishes with the author who complained in a letter to a close friend that she would have truly liked a bigger advance than the 110 she got for Pride and Prejudice.

It’s no fantastic secret that Austen’s stories are captivated with the microeconomics of the “3 or four households in a nation village” that she made her lifelong theme. These days, however, we tend to slap Twilight-style romance covers on them and attempt to forget that her most lovely heroines are in fact fortune hunters.

I will pause for a minute as a thousand Janeites worldwide cry out in unison. However 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 profession of a gentleman’s child in the late 18th century.

Austen, too, was a fortune hunter, after a fashion. Like any author, she wrote for many reasons– individual creative expression, to captivate herself and her cherished sister Cassandra, to discuss the world around her in the guise of simple stories– but also for money. She made efforts to get herself a publisher, and did.

As bro Henry’s whitewashing recommends, this was not an uncontroversial activity, particularly for a gentleman’s little girl. 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 stabilized now– was still concerned with the suspicious eye of centuries’ worth of Christian paeans to poverty and stylish snobbery about trade, finance, and any form of non-inherited wealth.

\* \* \* Austen was a years of age when the contemporary science of economics was invented. Adam Smith, Jane’s next-door neighbor to the north in Scotland, released An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, frequently understood today by its pithier last 4 words. Its most popular line is the rallying banner for freetotally free marketeers even in 2014, a winning defense of the power and driving force of the very industrial self-interest that the established churches of Europe derided: “It is not from the altruism of the butcher, the maker, or the baker that we expect our supper, but from regard to their self interest.”

If any Smith book was likely to have sat on an Austenian side table, it wasn’t The Wealth of Nations however The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Austen– the highly literate daughter of a highly educated parson, well read in that polymath method that seems impossible to us now– probably did not try the slog with the two-volume treatise of political economy, or at least no excellent evidence that she did exists. However Smith’s work was at the cutting edge of liberal opinion, and penetrated the culture around it, as much as any bestselling book today. For instance, one of the volumes in the Austen household 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 idea of the Knowledge. A footnote in the reissued 1781 edition points Percival’s more youthful readers to Smith’s description of the procedure of making a pin in The Wealth of Nations, the well-known demo of the department of labor at work. (Yes, undoubtedly: kids’s books had footnotes at that time.) Peter Knox-Shaw mentions 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.


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