Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Economics in Austen-World

It’s Flag Day, and I enjoyed putting the flag out. We had for some time a bougainvillea that grew in front of my flag pole holder and made it difficult to fly the flag, but severe weather did it in a year or so ago, so I’m unhindered in my patriotic efforts now. 

It is also a book club day. Today my friends and I talked about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which I love and have read multiple times. I’ve been thinking for a while that when this discussion came up, I would do a blog post about the economics of Jane Austen’s world. 

We’re talking right around 1800 in England. I’ve been reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which was published around 1776 in Scotland, so that has given me some additional perspective. 

One of the reasons I find reading Jane Austen so enjoyable, soothing even, is that her world seems so civilized in comparison to our own. People are still very human, but there is an assumption that people are trying to be honest, noble, and good. Even when evil comes up, it’s far milder than would show up on most TV dramas today. And it’s hard to find someone in a movie that could live up to the everyday standards of Austen-world. 

But the most common source of struggle in her books is economic. Austen always writes about the gentleman class. Stratified society is foreign to me, but it was natural to them. In the Spherical Model, one of the descriptions I have for a civilized world is that it is possible to rise socially and economically. Classes are merely economic levels that can be overcome by education, hard work, and good opportunities—if not in a single generation, then in the next. But in Austen-world there is very little crossing of these imaginary social boundaries. 

In Pride and Prejudice, there’s the difference in station between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett’s family, even though her father is considered of the gentleman class, so the distinction is in level within the layer, so economics is part of it. The real trial is an assumption that one cannot be of the gentle class and actually work for a living. Managing an estate, including farming, is considered appropriate. But being a lawyer or a shopkeeper is disqualifying. Gentlemen who do not inherit the estate are expected to fulfill their lives either by joining the clergy and having some patron pay for their living, or to go into the military, which may also require someone paying their commission. This seems to me indecently limiting. Education is encouraged and expected, but only in order to make one more interesting in social situations, not to make one more useful to the world. 

Wickham, the evil gentleman and near villain of the story, flirts with Elizabeth near the beginning, but when he turns his attention to a young woman who just inherited 10,000 pounds (a sizable principle sum in its day that would provide interest enough for a comfortable, even wealthy, living), she sees it as possibly a prudent move on his part. 

A similar situation happens in Sense and Sensibility, when Willoughby abandons his infatuation with Marianne because he has crossed his aunt from whom he had hoped to inherit wealth and must therefore turn to a wealthy woman for his future upkeep. 

Things are even worse for women without money. They have the opportunity of serving as a governess, if she doesn’t have relatives who can support her, as was the expected fate of Jane Fairfax in Emma. Or they can marry. We see Charlotte Lucas’s decision to marry Mr. Collins, in Pride and Prejudice, as somewhat desperate. But she makes the best of things, because this was her best chance to have a household to run and to stop being a burden on her parents. So her husband’s folly is just a tolerable cost she is satisfied to bear. 

The whole inheritance system seems something of a problem. In Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn, the Bennett family estate, is entailed to Mr. Collins. In other words, Mr. Bennett owns it but, according to the terms by which he inherited it, he cannot pass it on to his wife or any of his daughters—only to a son, which he never had. So the next nearest male relative, Mr. Collins, will receive it based on nothing of his own conduct, only his luck that a legal paper says so. 

A similar difficulty occurs in Sense and Sensibility, when Elinor’s father dies. Her father had thought he had spelled out all that was necessary to make sure that his second wife and daughters would be well cared for. But the son from his first marriage is not only selfish; he is encouraged in greed and unkindness by a rather uncivilized wife. So the female family members end up taking a small cottage, where they can get by rather economically. 

Austen talks about money in frequent detail, naming how many thousand pounds a person has bestowed on them, because in that time the numbers brought to mind a specific sort of lifestyle. The translation in our day would be seeing the difference between $40,000 a year, $100,000 a year, $250,000 a year, and $1,000,000+ a year. You can imagine the likely housing and lifestyle for the different levels. The difference is, we can easily move from one level to another during our lifetime, and for the most part we associate with all levels as needed. A wealthy young woman wouldn’t hesitate to marry a young man from a poorer family if she meets him in the process of improving and preparing himself for a decent future. 

Austen doesn’t deal very much with the middle and lower classes in her books, but it seems to me they have some economic freedoms not open to the noble class. Elizabeth’s aunts have married a merchant and a lawyer. While it is recognized a number of times that their ways of making money reflect negatively on the family (just to be related to working men was somehow lowering), they actually come across as very good people. The Gardiners help out Elizabeth’s family quite a lot: they have Jane stay with them in London after her heartbreak; they have Elizabeth travel the countryside with them on their vacation; they help handle the mess caused by Lydia. We see them as every bit as genteel as the noble class, and better mannered than many. And even Mr. Darcy, who is prejudged to be too proud to associate with such people, seems to appreciate them when they meet. So, even if Austen didn’t see it at the time, because her world simply was what it was, the crossing of class lines does seem somewhat possible and positive. 

I prefer the many freedoms, economic and otherwise, that we enjoy in our country. But the expectation of goodness evident in their world is civilized in a way that we have not seen for a while. It ought to be possible to have both. I think we did in this country for most of our history, which is how we became a great civilization. Getting back to civilization will require following those same rules—which work every time they’re tried.

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