Smithian Imagination and Austen's Catharine or the Bower

jane austen fellow-feeling imagination sympathetic imagination

Carly Jackson for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith often used fictional examples to talk about his ideas. Carly Jackson takes his lead using an unfinished work of Jane Austen's juvenilia to help us think about sympathy, fellow-feeling, and imagination gone wrong. 
I confess I was a bit hesitant to read Adam Smith again. I attended a previous virtual reading group that included readings from The Wealth of Nations and struggled with the text. For this group, I read Jane Austen’s unfinished juvenilia, Catharine or the Bower, before reading the first few chapters of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and it was a completely different experience. Interpreting Smith’s moral philosophy through the filter of Kitty’s story opened up the text like a kaleidoscope revealing new colors and patterns.


In the second paragraph of TMS, Adam Smith claims that our sympathy for others begins with our imagination. 

“By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.” (TMS, Part I. Section 1. Chapter 1. Paragraph 2)

We witness another suffering, we imagine ourselves in the same situation, and then we are able to feel sympathy for that other person. Smith identifies this process as the source of “fellow-feeling” for others. When we meet Catharine (called “Kitty”) in Catharine or the Bower, she is longing for someone with whom to sympathize. Her closest friends, Cecelia and Mary Wynne, moved away after the death of their parents. 

Kitty’s own parents died when she was very young and left her in the care of her aunt Mrs. Percival. Her aunt seems to have no idea what Kitty’s real character is, “her aunt loved her dearly, and that her usual method of expressing that love was berating her for her faults and fearing the worst in everyone around them,” (Bower, Chapter 4).

Longing for sympathy, Kitty often visits the bower in the garden where she and Cecelia and Mary used to be together. 


When the Stanleys come to visit, Kitty is eager to make friends with their daughter, Camilla.

“Kitty was herself a great reader, though perhaps not a very deep one, and felt therefore highly delighted to find that Miss Stanley was equally fond of it. Eager to know that their sentiments as to books were similar, she very soon began questioning her new acquaintance on the subject;” (Bower, Chapter 1). Through her questioning, Kitty learns that her cousin Camilla repeats popular opinions on books and doesn’t have her own opinions to offer. Camilla quickly changes the subject. 

When Camilla’s brother, Edward Stanley makes a surprise appearance, his charisma fools Kitty into thinking they share fellow-feeling. Edward is more skilled at hiding his superficiality than Camilla. Kitty’s imagination, and Camilla’s careless lying, leads Kitty to believe that Edward is in love with her.

“Kitty was by this time perfectly convinced that both in natural abilities and acquired information Edward Stanley was infinitely superior to his sister. Her desire of knowing that he was so had induced her to take every opportunity of turning the conversation to history; and they were very soon engaged in an historical dispute for which no one was more calculated than Stanley, who was so far from being really of any party that he had scarcely a fixed opinion on the subject. He could therefore always take either side and always argue with temper. In his indifference on all such topics he was very unlike his companion, whose judgement being guided by her feelings which were eager and warm, was easily decided, and though it was not always infallible, she defended it with a spirit and enthusiasm which marked her own reliance on it,” (Bower, Chapter 2).

Edward does not share a fellow-feeling with Kitty in this scene, he is merely entertaining himself by arguing points for which he has no feeling. This scene ends when he kisses her hand for the sole purpose of aggravating her aunt. Kitty, on the other hand, was fooled by his charm to believe that she was sharing a fellow-feeling with Edward.

"[N]othing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast," (TMS, Part 1. Section 1. Chapter 2 paragraph 1). 

Although Kitty and Camilla never share fellow-feeling with each other, they both find husbands with whom they share fellow-feeling in the version of the novel completed by Leo Rockas. Camilla makes a good match with Sir Henry Devereaux, based on their shared love of fashion. By being exposed to more people in London, Kitty learned how to interpret the behavior of those around her because she has socialized with other men and women. Kitty eventually makes a good match with Charles Wynne, first connecting in a conversation about enjoying both history books and novels. 

Characters who read novels often show a greater capacity for sympathy in Austen novels-- however, novel reading is not the only education for sensible characters. Personal experience matters too. Ms. Percival may be overly fastidious and have the wrong opinion of her niece, but Edward Stanley is exactly the reason for middle-aged women being concerned for their young and inexperienced nieces.

Imagination Gone Wrong

The self-proclaimed benefactors of Cecelia and Mary Wynne patted themselves and each other on the back for helping them, and yet the children were in terrible circumstances. The benefactors had too much imagination and didn't know what would actually benefit the children.From Kitty’s perspective, the benefactors actively harmed the Wynnes.

"We enter into their gratitude towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them," (TMS, Part 1. Section 1. Chapter 1).

The benefactors saw themselves as faithful friends and were actually perfidious traitors-- a failure of their imagination.

“If we hear a person loudly lamenting his misfortunes, which, however, upon bringing the case home to ourselves, we feel, can produce no such violent effect upon us, we are shocked at his grief; and because we cannot enter into it, cal it pusillanimity and weakness,” (TMS, Part 1. Section 1. Chapter 2). The self-proclaimed benefactors cannot imagine why the Wynnes were unhappy with their placements. 

If only someone would think to ask Kitty. 

More on Jane Austen and Adam Smith
Shannon Chamberlain's Jane Austen's Theory of Moral Sentiments: Pride, Prejudice, and Prudence
Sarah Skwires' Sir William Lucas Should Have Read Adam Smith
Cecil Bohanon and Michelle Vachris' Self-Help Advice from Adam Smith and Jane Austen
Caroline Breashears' Jane Austen and the Perks of Imperfection

More from Carly Jackson
Pirate Enlightenment: Some Treasures, Some Toils, a Book Review of Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia by David Graeber
Book Club Podcast - new season coming soon!

Renee Wilmeth

I love this so much! I confess, I felt the same way the first time I read WN. But TMS? I fell in love with it. And when you go back to WN, you'll find it reads much differently. Great thoughts on Catherine!

Darwyyn Deyo

What a great analysis using TMS, and I love the details you highlight in 'Catherine, or the Bower' here! Kitty is such a good prism for the development of the impartial spectator, and Camilla gives us the counterexample (almost a Caroline Bingley-type) of how we can fail the impartial spectator. For what it's worth, Smith also seemed to care a great deal more about TMS than WON - the former being his magnum opus and the latter being something of an instruction manual on how not to screw up the economy.

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