The Economics of Jane Austen

by Rachel Baker on August 3, 2014

Much like the medical breakthroughs and theories of her day had a profound effect on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the invention of the modern science of economics had a profound effect on Austin’s work. She was one year old when The Wealth of Nations was published by her neighbor Adam Smith.

Below is a great look by Shannon Chamberlain at The Atlantic on the economics of Jane Austin’s work.

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.

The Economics of Jane Austen

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Amazon Wish ListEvernoteFlipboardInstapaperNewsVineSpringpadWordPressTypePad PostStumbleUponLiveJournalPocketRedditShare

Previous post:

Next post: