Jane Austen's Theory of Moral Sentiments: Pride, Prejudice, and Prudence

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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 2nd post, we'll explore that triumph and tragedy of Charlotte Lucas. 
In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen reckoned with Adam Smith’s story of the poor man’s son, who spent his life in pursuit of wealth that turned out to provide only illusory benefits. Although one of her protagonists, Marianne Dashwood, seems to undergo the same journey, I argued that Austen sees the road from romantic imagination to a certain amount of disillusionment and crankiness about wealth as itself significant in the formation of Marianne’s character: in other words, Marianne would be worse off if she had started the novel with the more narrowly prudent attitude of her sister, Elinor.
What is the right amount of prudence? What is the right kind? In his sixth section of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith turns to a discussion of his three chief virtues: prudence, benevolence, and magnanimity. Prudence is the most accessible to all, and in some ways the most important. It starts, he says, in the “voice of Nature herself,” which recommends to us the care of ourselves and our property. In time, however, we realize that “some care and foresight are necessary for providing the means of gratifying those natural appetites, of procuring pleasure and avoiding pain…in the proper direction of this care and foresight consists the art of preserving and increasing what is called his external fortune.” We quickly come to realize that prudence is more than simply providing for the “necessities and conveniencies of the body, which are always easily supplied,” thanks to the operation of the invisible hand. No, we are also interested in the opinion of the impartial spectator, which naturally tends towards esteem for those who have properly put aside immediate pleasures in pursuit of future, greater benefits.
Austen’s cheerful gentry fortune hunters are often deeply thoughtful about the virtue of prudence. The problems of failing to regard it at all Austen makes vivid in such characters as Mrs. Price, at the beginning of Mansfield Park. Making a “very imprudent marriage” well below the class of her birth and education, she’s forced to discover prudence late in life, writing to her splendidly married sister Lady Bertram to express “so much contrition and despondence, such a superfluity of children, and such a want of almost everything else,” which eventually results in her need to relinquish a daughter to live as a poor relative in the home of the Bertrams. A heavy price to pay for a youthful desire to “disoblige her family,” indeed.
On the other hand, certain characters suggest the limitations of merely financial concerns in marriage. The flighty Isabella Thorpe of Northanger Abbey only pursues James Morland because she falsely believes him to have a fortune; when it turns out that he doesn’t, she quickly drops both him and his sister Catherine, who has been her very close friend until now. In the end, she doesn’t get her rich bachelor, suggesting that she has not properly understood the virtue of prudence. It’s led her to be a false friend to the story’s heroine, which Smith says that people who embody the virtue of prudence are not. Although the friendship of the prudent person is “sedate,” it is also “steady and faithful.” Isabella Thorpe reaps the rewards of her moral bankruptcy and improper understanding of prudence.
Of all of the Austen characters who might have the best claim to a proper understanding of the virtue of prudence as it appears to Smith, the one who stands out is Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte is Elizabeth Bennet’s best friend, the daughter of a local tradesman who was once so good at business that he merited a knighthood. Unfortunately, his elevation to this honor causes him to consider himself above the conduct of business, leaving his eldest daughter to fend for herself in the business of marriage. She is a “sensible, intelligent” young woman, but without beauty or fortune to recommend her. At twenty-seven (ancient in the nineteenth-century marriage market), she is running out of time to ensure that she will be anything other than the old maid her younger brothers are already beginning to fear she will become. An unmarried eighteenth-century gentlewoman’s choices were starkly curtailed to living in penury and becoming objects of charity (as do the Bates mother and daughter in Emma), becoming a governess (Jane Fairfax, also in Emma), or living on the beneficence of family members, which is the option that Charlotte fears will be her lot.
Still, readers of Pride and Prejudice have a long history of finding the choice that Charlotte makes to avoid this life of dependence hard to approve of. In marrying the odious Mr. Collins—the obsequious clergyman who first proposes himself to Elizabeth, who refuses him in no uncertain terms—Charlotte earns the initial disrespect of her friend, who believes that Charlotte has “sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.” Collins, even in Charlotte’s own estimation of him, is neither “sensible nor clever,” but he does infamously enjoy the patronage (or “condescension,” as the novel often puts it) of the right noble Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Charlotte will live comfortably, will be the mistress of her own small garden, and, best of all, will not live off the charity of her younger brothers. The only price, Elizabeth points out, is that her friend will now find it impossible to be happy. 
But the novel does not quite let Smith’s virtue of prudence, which Charlotte possesses in spades, remain in such low regard. For one thing, Charlotte goes in with her eyes open. She knows that Mr. Collins is no one’s idea of a prize, but he is an instrumental good on the way to what she really values: her own space and the respect that her establishment will command. Even Elizabeth, upon visiting her friend after marriage, “had to meditate upon Charlotte’s degree of contentment, to understand her address in guiding, and composure in bearing with, her husband, and to acknowledge that it was all done very well.” Charlotte knows exactly what she has purchased, and at what cost. She does not entangle, as does the poor man’s son, imagination with the pursuit of wealth. She is no Isabella Thorpe, self-delusional and in consequence deceptive with others.
But for another, Charlotte’s friendship with Elizabeth—in the manner of the friendship of the prudent person—is steady and faithful, and tends to Elizabeth’s benefit. Elizabeth is shocked earlier in the novel when Charlotte advises her not to slight Mr. Darcy in favor of Mr. Wickham because Wickham has more appealing conversation and better social graces. At that point in the novel, Elizabeth finds Charlotte’s argument—that Darcy has “ten times the consequence” of Wickham—immoral. We might, too, especially after we’re tricked alongside Elizabeth by Wickham’s tall tales of Darcy’s injustice towards him. But read more charitably, this is another exercise of Charlotte’s prudence. Charlotte advises Elizabeth not to trust to appearances. Wickham appears amiable, but how well do they really know him? Darcy, in the end, does turn out to have ten times at least the consequence of Wickham, and not just in net worth. And Charlotte is the only one who wasn’t fooled.
I’d even go so far as to argue that Charlotte’s more prudential attitude, the seeds of which are planted in this conversation, causes Elizabeth to let go of some of her prejudices against Darcy. Even after reading his partially exonerating letter of his conduct in l’affaire Wickham, Elizabeth doesn’t truly seem to soften towards him until she sees the material representation of his wealth. “To be mistress of Pemberley,” she thinks, upon touring Darcy’s estate, “might be something!” In other words, the money and access that Darcy offers aren’t the valueless nothings that Elizabeth believes them to be earlier in the novel. Charlotte’s bargain and her continuing steady friendship with Elizabeth potentially lays the groundwork for this somewhat un-Elizabethan interjection.
If Charlotte is the hero behind this deeply satisfying transformation, it’s hard not to see her as the only character in the novel who doesn’t quite harvest the rewards of her merits. But this is where thinking about Charlotte in Smith’s terms pays off. In fact, Charlotte acts in accordance with her governing virtue, and reaps the rewards of that particular virtue. Prudence is admirable to the impartial spectator, and its absence either leaves one open to pity or occasionally combines with other vices to create “the vilest of all characters.” But prudence is not, Smith reminds us—at least not coupled with direction towards “greater and nobler purposes than the care of the health, the fortune, the rank and reputation of the individual”—the “most ennobling of the virtues.” It “commands a certain cold esteem, but seems no entitled to any very ardent love or admiration.” Smith says that the man of virtue “in the bottom of his heart…would prefer the undisturbed enjoyment of secure tranquility.” This is precisely what this woman of virtue gains in her little garden, avoiding her odious husband. We cannot regard her story as a tragedy, but her particular virtue limits her victory, too.

This is part 2 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