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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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?