Jane Austen's Theory of Moral Sentiments: The Failed Speculator in Persuasion

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Shannon Chamberlain for AdamSmithWorks

Jane Austen isn’t the first name that comes to mind when we think of capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, or the moral side of the pursuit of wealth. But the England in which she lived and wrote her six extraordinary novels was deeply affected by the economic and social changes that Smith described in The Wealth of Nations. In this final post, I turn to an interrogation of rationality and the limits of our ability to predict the future, especially the economic future, and the necessity of living with our failed speculations.
In the previous parts of this series, I argued that Jane Austen’s novels engage Adam Smith’s ideas about how moral virtues encourage and limit the pursuit of moneymaking. Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood undertakes the journey of the poor man’s son in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice is both benefited and limited by her proper understanding of prudence. Several other characters in Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey live lives defined by their improper understanding of the virtue, the one that Smith considers a baseline for all moral conduct.
In this last installment, I turn to Austen’s final novel, Persuasion. On its most fundamental level, it is an interrogation of rationality and the limits of our ability to predict the future, especially the economic future, and the necessity of living with our failed speculations. The stakes are the highest: the fate and happiness of a very worth heroine. Anne Elliott is the thoroughly kind, thoroughly sensible, thoroughly put-upon daughter of a vain and foppish baronet, the lowest rank of the English nobility. Like nearly all of Austen’s novels, this one begins in financial distress. Sir Walter, the aforementioned fop, has managed to fritter away all the ready cash. Although his daughters won’t face the indignity that belongs to the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice or the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility and see their fortune left away from them because they happened to be born female, there’s not much of a fortune left for Sir Walter’s daughters to inherit. His combination of imprudence and vanity—which Austen skewers deliciously through descriptions of him perusing his favorite reading material, a catalogue of the titled nobility of the country, instead of attending to the bills of his tradesmen—have even led him to the necessity of renting out his country seat to a member of the admiralty, newly returned and newly wealthy from the Napoleonic naval wars.
Unfortunately for Anne (like Charlotte at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, she is 27 and as yet unmarried), the particular admiral who will be renting out the family estate is the brother-in-law of another sailor whose suit she rejected seven years earlier. She’s never seen anyone since whom she’s liked more, and the wistfulness and regret she feels about her bad decision-making weigh heavily on her. As the novel opens, the narrator describes her “bloom” as having vanished early. She has tried to urge fiscal prudence on her father for years, but in a family that regards physical beauty and health as indicators of moral and intellectual worth, she is “faded and thin.” Her “word had no weight” with her father or older sister.
It doesn’t help soothe Anne’s guilt or regret that Captain Wentworth, the rejected suitor, made bank in the war, just as he said he would. When she first met him, he was a bit of a braggart and swashbuckler, “spending freely what freely came.” Anne, only 19, is guided by the advice of the woman who serves as a surrogate mother to her after the death of her real mother. This Lady Russell, well-known and well-regarded for her good sense and her persuasive powers, urges against the match, valuing Anne’s “birth, beauty, and mind” more highly than Wentworth’s personal charms and claims of future success in a “most uncertain profession.” Anne, against her heart and persuaded by Lady Russell’s ratiocination that past performance is the best predictor of future success, sends Wentworth packing. But everything Wentworth predicted came to pass. Napoleon’s escape from Elba—and who would have predicted that?—ruined many English financial speculators in Austen’s last decade, but it greatly enriched the gentlemen of the navy. Set back on shore with a fortune burning a hole in his pocket, Wentworth longs to settle down with any pretty little thing that catches his fancy—except, of course, Anne Elliott, whose failure to see his real worth in advance of his making his fortune still infuriates him. Austen’s narrator is more gentle in her account of Anne, but still gets to the heart of the matter when she writes, “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” 
Anne is in some ways the anti-Marianne Dashwood, whose wild and speculative imagination led to the more “natural” journey, from romance to prudence, that we saw in Sense and Sensibility. The novel, however, insists until the end that the young Anne wasn’t necessarily wrong to heed the advice of Lady Russell. It doesn’t even insist that Lady Russell was mistaken at the time, or ill-intentioned. Lady Russell’s goodness and good sense is, rather, insisted upon. She merely wants her beloved charge to avoid being sunk “into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence” by financial troubles, the kind that plagued Mrs. Price in Mansfield Park. But the novel confronts a much trickier question than mistakes or bad intentions: how do we make sound decisions about the future in a world, especially a financial world, that is shifting beneath our feet?
More than in any of her other novels, Austen confronts the problems of a changed economic landscape. Sir Walter renting out his estate to someone in a profession (and one that does terrible damage to the complexion, he notes disdainfully) is the first indication that the old aristocracy is being slowly replaced by people who do things, rather than sit on things. Lady Russell, although smart and serious, “had prejudices on the side of ancestry; she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them.” It also seems to blind her to the value of those who don’t. She is stands as representative of the old ways: of aristocrats who earn money from the land, rather than by trade or the professions, of traditions and customs about marriage among the nobility, and a staid regard for the status quo. In an older and more stable economic world, her advice might have been truly prudent and served Anne well. In a world where Napoleon can slip his guard at Elba and wreak havoc on the European economic landscape for half a decade—well, Lady Russell’s imagination simply doesn’t extend that far.
Anne and Lady Russell, in other words, have failed to speculate. In fact, Lady Russell seems to disdain the modern economic world and its speculations, fortunes suddenly made and lost, on principle. Although Smith didn’t live long enough to witness the booms and busts of the Napoleonic era, he lived through plenty of other financial speculations, as well as the anti-speculative fervors that followed busts. He wrote against such anti-modern moralism in Book V of The Wealth of Nations, comparing it to peasants’ superstitious persecution of supposed witches. “Engrossing and forestalling”—a practice of buying up corn futures when the crop was plentiful and cheap and selling them dear when it wasn’t—was banned in England in 1552 and not legalized until 1844, despite what Smith identifies as the benefits of such practices to keeping the country well fed. Smith largely wrote The Wealth of Nations to describe an economic world in which the old assumptions and economic categories were faltering in the face of new industries and professions.
Life, Persuasion understands, is about making decisions with limited information, for a future that might be decidedly different from the present. Good speculation and assumption of risk are a part of both moral and financial calculus, and can enrich the world and even out times of plenty and scarcity. In her time of plenty, Anne failed to buy up shares to mitigate against scarcity, unsure that they would really pay out. The question that remains for me at the end of the novel is whether she was right to reject Wentworth’s boasts about his future, or indeed unduly influenced by Lady Russell’s conservatism. In an Austen novel, other flashy figures like the one he initially cuts often do turn out to be morally flawed, failing to attend to prudence. Smith says that a failure to be prudent, when combined with other vices, “constitutes the vilest of all characters,” which is certainly the case for someone like George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. When Wentworth returns to English shores, he gives an account of himself to his sister that suggests that he is still a bit imprudent in matters of the heart. “Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match. Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking. A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man.” Fortunately for Anne and for all of us, this is not really how he acts. Wentworth’s speculative question—for his heart still truly belongs to Anne—is whether she has the strength of character and fortitude first to accept him, and then live the uncertain and potentially dangerous life of a sailor’s wife. He wants to invest in their future, but he needs to know if she is still the easily led, conservative creature she was at 19. Her coming into her own happens by means a rhetorical performance. Holding her ground in an argument with his good friend that he happens to overhear, she is finally able to demonstrate that she has the fortitude to stand up to Lady Russell and to know her own mind. Unlike Anne, though, he has demanded a certain amount of proof to invest himself. The novel’s final chapter asks us, “Who can be in doubt of what followed?” And indeed, who can, at this late point, when all of the circumstances have been made known to us? But in her final novel, Austen points us to an asymmetry between the risks that a young girl might be expected to assume when she attends prudently to her future in a transforming world, and a man of experience and fortune who already understands that world when he makes his cautious and well-supported bet on Anne. Speculation drives the marriage market, but that market might not be equally perilous for all. 
This is part 1 of a 3-part series by Shannon Chamberlain.
Read the first part here:
Jane Austen's Theory of Moral Sentiments: Sense, Sensibility, and Adam Smith | Adam Smith Works
Read the second part here:
Jane Austen's Theory of Moral Sentiments: Pride, Prejudice, and Prudence