By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
In the early 19th century, an elite attitude toward wealth, especially inherited wealth, viewed the amount of money one had at their disposal as linked to personal virtue. To be poor meant being seen by many privileged people as, by nature, deficient in virtue. Jane Austen’s novels, however, do not endorse this common attitude. Instead, her novels present values and assumptions that call into question received wisdom about the connection between money, character, and virtue.
Working Class in Austen’s Fiction
Oddly, Jane Austen’s fiction rarely gives voice to the working classes or to the servants in her stories. A 21st-century novel by Jo Baker, Longbourn, set out to reimagine Pride and Prejudice told from the perspective of the servants—a really fascinating fictional experiment.
And yet, it’s important to note that Austen’s fiction, although doesn’t give servants much of a voice, it doesn’t build in contempt for them either. We can see this through the ways Austen has her admirable and loathsome monied characters treat the poor.
The Poor Law System
Austen’s wealthiest heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is said to pay charitable visits to a poor, sick family outside the village of Highbury. This is an example of a real-life practice. At this time, the support and relief of the poor was done by the parish Poor Law system.
Parishes, and the newly emerging workhouses, set out to provide for the needs of approximately a million people in England who were aged, infirm, or unable to work. So, Emma is probably giving money or food to those as yet unprovided for.
That doesn’t tell us about her attitude toward poverty, but it does tell us that she understands charitable practices.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Mrs. Smith in Persuasion
Importantly, Austen’s most economically defeated minor characters are shown to be perfectly virtuous, useful, and good, like the widowed Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. When Sir Walter insults her as a nobody, he is meant to be understood by the reader as horrifying and ridiculous.
In fact, Mrs. Smith’s goodness, and her valuable information, allows Anne Elliot to see her way clear to rebuffing William Walter Elliot, her cousin and her father’s heir.
Austen’s unsympathetic characters have unenlightened views about the relationship between character and wealth. In Pride and Prejudice, we’re told that the snobbish Caroline Bingley and her sister would have had difficulty believing that Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle, Mr. Gardiner, could live ‘by trade, and within view of his own warehouses’, yet still be ‘well-bred and agreeable’.
To describe someone as simultaneously ‘in trade’ and ‘well-bred’, as Austen’s narrative does here, is seeking to expand the standard definition of what constitutes good breeding. The novel gives the phrase ‘good breeding’ a more open definition, one that might go beyond inherited wealth and birth in determining what was polite and good.
It is unsurprising that Austen’s fiction would question elite attitudes about the alleged connections among goodness, moral worth, equality, and wealth. She herself wasn’t raised with riches.
One critic famously referred to Austen’s family as ‘pseudo-gentry’, as they belonged to the ‘non-landed professionals of the rural elite’. Members of the pseudo-gentry demonstrated their position not by titles or estates—they didn’t have them—but by income, goods, and connections. The women of this class fell, rose, or maintained their positions largely through marriage.
Austen Liked Getting Paid
Marriage was the only way out because few educated women then had regular, independent incomes from their own labor. Even Austen could not have supported herself entirely with the amount of money she made publishing her writings in the last decade of her life.
But, it’s important to be clear she was apparently very happy to have made money from her writings! She liked being paid. In one of her private letters, Austen famously declares that she wanted her writings to be appreciated but that she also welcomed what her brother calls ‘Pewter’, a slang word for silver coins.
Austen’s Philosophy of Class
Austen’s own personal philosophy of class, economics, and money remains much debated. Whether we look into her stories and see a ratification of her era’s emerging market capitalism, or whether we see a deep skepticism of it, one must agree that her novels manage to raise enduring economic questions.
Austen does this successfully as her fiction focuses on the proper role of wealth, landownership, and social status in relationships and in communities, as well as on whether or how wealth ought to be passed down from generation to generation. Her fiction imagines a world in which moral worth, and economic value, aren’t strictly tied together. Qualities of character and mind might matter more than the class one was born into.
Young People as Economic Carriers
Jane Austen’s fiction also makes us look closely where all the wealth is going, how it’s being moved around and consolidated, used and misused. She looks at how young men and women are compelled to serve as economic carriers and pawns in their families and communities. Austen shows us how wealth is structurally tethered to social status, yet need not be tethered to opinions about character and moral worth.
The poet W. H. Auden perhaps put it most succinctly in verse. He wrote of Austen in 1937:
You could not shock her more than she shocks me…
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Perhaps, following W. H. Auden, we might conclude that the value in reading Austen’s fiction today is its ability to provoke our shock and discomfort about love, money, and greed, through its frank revelations about the structured distribution, and handing down, of land and wealth—past and present.
Common Questions about Attitudes Toward Wealth in Jane Austen’s Fiction
Jane Austen’s most economically defeated minor characters are shown to be perfectly virtuous, useful, and good.
Jane Austen‘s fiction focuses on the proper role of wealth, landownership, and social status in relationships and in communities, as well as on whether or how wealth ought to be passed down from generation to generation.
Jane Austen’s family was referred to as ‘pseudo-gentry’ because they belonged to the ‘non-landed professionals of the rural elite’. Members of the pseudo-gentry demonstrated their position not by titles or estates—they didn’t have them—but by income, goods, and connections.