The economics of Jane Austen
In doing so, he joins the likes of Mark Twain and DH Lawrence in a long line of smart men who’ve fundamentally misunderstood what Jane Austen is about. Chief amongst his quibbles is the marriage focus of Austen’s novels.
“Just when you think she’s never going to get married… guess what? She does! And so do all the others.”
To Austen lovers, this is perhaps one of the most grating criticisms. Male writers like Dickens or Shakespeare are rarely reprimanded for ending their comedies in marriage (as most comedies do). Indeed, As You Like It concludes with no fewer than four weddings – a number unmatched by any Austen novel.
Yet Coren’s piece speaks to a much wider misreading, as Baddiel puts it, one which views Austen as the “jolly, acerbic, dry maiden aunt who’s obsessed with love because she was unlucky in love herself.”
Interestingly, economists are leading the way in giving Austen’s work the serious, socio-political examination it deserves. One recent book, by UCLA Professor Michael Chwe, posits Austen as a proto-John Nash, citing her novels as “game theory textbooks”.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, meanwhile, takes the incomes of Austen’s characters to support his arguments about the persistence of inherited wealth. Though we might disagree on Piketty’s broader conclusions, he is absolutely right to view Austen’s novels as important markers of economic history.
Far from being the aloof, sterile love stories many readers imagine, these works are deeply engaged with the economic realities of Georgian and Regency England.
During Austen’s adult life, Britain was punctuated by a series of economic crises, including a doubling of consumer prices, unprecedented national debt triggered by the Napoleonic Wars, waves of recession, banking crises, the debasement of coinage, a major economic crash, and two periods of depression.
When Austen began writing Sense and Sensibility in 1795, Britain had been experiencing drastic inflation for several decades. Between 1750 and 1794, the price of consumer goods doubled, though wages only increased by 25%. As one critic notes: ‘at least some of the Dashwoods’ fiscal problems are likely driven by the extreme loss of purchasing power due to inflation.’
Understanding the financial woes underpinning Sense and Sensibility adds weight to their plight, and makes John Dashwood’s failure to support his sisters still more unpalatable.
Austen’s plots do indeed hinge on marriage, in the broadest sense. Given the limited choices available to women at the time, and the heightened importance of marriage in such societies, how could they not?
But modern readers often overlook the fact that Austen’s women are intelligent decision-makers, conscious of their worth in a harsh marriage market. As Henry Tilney, the hero of Northanger Abbey notes, proposals offer a rare moment of female autonomy – though men are given “the advantage of choice”, women have the ultimate “power of refusal.”
Take Charlotte Lucas’s decision to accept Mr Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice – usually seen as pragmatism at best, gold-digging opportunism at worst. When judged in the light of her financial situation, however, Charlotte’s engineering of her own fate starts to look far more rational.
Charlotte is 27 years old, and already considered ‘on the shelf’ by contemporary standards. Despite making a modest fortune in trade (enough to purchase a nearby estate) – her father Sir William Lucas, like Mr Bennet, has failed to put money aside to settle dowries on his daughters. Charlotte correctly perceives marriage as her only feasible option; certainly preferable to living as an unwanted burden on whichever of her brothers ends up taking her in.
While none of the Bennet sisters have any dowry of note, their beauty and comparative youth confer a market value that affords them more choice. Indeed, fully aware of his annual income (“10,000 a year”) and his large estate in Derbyshire, Elizabeth declines Mr Darcy’s first proposal of marriage. Darcy would never have had to propose to Charlotte Lucas twice.
Though Elizabeth’s initial reaction to Charlotte’s engagement is one of muted disgust, her later assessment suggests that she has partially accepted this mercenary way of thinking. “In a prudential light” she tells Mr Darcy, “it is certainly a very good match for her.”
Through such examples, Austen suggests that many – possibly most – Georgian marriages were driven by economic imperatives. But, in examining why her heroines have been afforded so little choice, Austen ensures that her novels never defend the problematic status quo.
The concept of marriage has changed dramatically, especially in developed economies, so we need emotional and economic empathy to grasp that Austen still has a lot to teach us. But five minutes in Elizabeth Bennet or Charlotte Lucas’s shoes would show Giles Coren just how wrong he is.
This article was first published on Conservative Home.