This is a paper I wrote for my Jane Austen class this spring. It was fun to write, and I don’t think my paper is extremely well-developed, but it was still fun and, I feel, interesting. 🙂
The Double-Edged Sword of Wealth
Conspicuous Consumption in Jane Austen’s Novels
Chawton IV: 1816-1817
by Tina Margiotta
Jane Austen needed to worry about money for most of her adult life. The views she developed of the proper display and use of wealth are littered throughout her novels. From August 1815 to August 1816, the time when Jane Austen was writing Persuasion, money and wealth continued to play an important role in her life. While Austen recognized and conceded the importance of money and wealth, she also condemns those characters which abuse its power and are overtly self-satisfied with it. Her treatment of poor characters, as well as wealthy ones, also show her attitudes towards wealth, consumption, and charity.
Austen’s brother Henry’s banks in London failed following the close of the Napoleonic Wars. While many small country banks failed as well, this setback severely worried Austen and was a great stress on her mind. Her own funds, which supported not only herself but her sister Cassandra and their mother as well, remained mostly unaffected: she lost less than thirty pounds with the bankruptcy of Austen Gray & Vincent (Le Faye, p. 234). However, the annual contributions that Henry and Frank, two of her brothers, could no longer be made to support Austen, Cassandra, and their mother. This sum amounted to £100 per year.
With the publication of Mansfield Park and Emma in 1814 and 1815, respectively, Austen’s finances increased. Despite the second publication of Mansfield Park in early 1816 failing and using up most of her profits from Emma, Austen still retained a sum of more than £150, since the first edition of Mansfield Park brought her the greatest profit than any of her other novels.
In all of her novels, Jane Austen makes a point of describing the displays of wealth her characters encounter. In Pride & Prejudice, the ostentatious trappings at Rosings are detailed, as are the lovely parks surrounding Pemberley. The differences in these descriptions shed light on Austen’s views of wealth as they pertain to material surroundings and places of residence. When describing Rosings Park, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s place of residence, Austen writes of the ostentatious trappings and the “fine proportion and finished ornaments” (Austen, p. 299). In contrast, Pemberley’s focus is on natural comforts:
“The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent…[Elizabeth] saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view…[Pemberley House] was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; -and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.”
[Austen, p. 341-42]
These differences highlight Austen’s love of natural lands. The enhancement of wealthy estates was desirable in her eyes, but should not go beyond a point as to seem overdone or pretentious. Darcy’s Pemberley is a harmony between art and nature.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen creates a character who, while not terribly wealthy, cares only for her clothing. Mrs. Allen’s speeches in the novel pertain mostly to her dresses – lined in exquisite lace made of the most beautiful cloths – and her worries about them not ripping or wrinkling. When Mrs. Allen first meets Mrs. Thorpe, she cannot speak of her own children, as she has none, but “her keen eye soon made [the discovery] that the lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own” (Austen, p. 971)
The influence of Austen’s own financial worries is seen in these observations, criticisms, and commendations. After the death of Austen’s father in 1805, the three women – Austen, the widowed Mrs. Austen, and Cassandra – lived on very little money until 1809, when they settled on their brother Edward’s estate at Chawton. This precarious financial situation led the female Austens to live in several different rented properties in Bath and rely on the hospitality of their other family members. Austen’s writing brought in an income which helped her family after their settling at Chawton. The eight years Austen spent at Chawton before her death in 1817 were the most productive for her writing. Chawton offered a “very quiet life” for the Austens, which suited Austen’s preferences for writing, as she was a very private person. In fact, in her nephew’s memoir, he writes that his Aunt Jane preferred not to have a squeaky hinge fixed so that she could hear when someone was to enter the living room and, consequently, hide away her manuscripts.
Although Austen mocks being overly attentive to dress and displays of wealth in her novels, her letters to Cassandra show her own attachment to the importance of appearances. Several early letters, from when she still resided at Steventon, detail which gowns she wore to which balls, and also mocked or complimented other females on their choices of dress. While this attention may seem hypocritical on the surface, it is, in fact, Austen’s constant attempts at economy. She would redo her gowns and reuse materials and lace whenever possible, as opposed to buying the latest fashions.
Austen’s wish of ecomonizing did not mean she preferred stinginess. Her stingy, mean characters are also criticized in her novels. For example, Lady Denham in Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon: Charlotte Heywood calls her “thoroughly mean.” Lady Denham talked only of herself, and believed others should grovel for her attention.
Austen always wished for a comfortable house. The houses her parents occupied in Bath, and later her mother and herself, were usually damp, despite their size. Austen writes to her sister Cassandra on May 21, 1801: “the observation of the damps still remaining in the offices of an house which has been only vacated a week…has given the coup de grace” (Letters, Le Faye, p. 87). Austen earlier criticizes her sister-in-law Mary, in December 1798, for not having a comfortable house: ““[Mary] is not tidy enough in her appearance; she has no dressing-gown to sit up in; her curtains are all too thin, and things are not in that comfort and style about her which are necessary to make such a situation an enviable one” (Letters, Le Faye, p. 24). Austen is, however, thoroughly comfortable at Chawton, which explains her increased productivity in writing during this time period.
In all of her novels, Austen points to the importance of a livable income. While Emma says “A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her,” Austen also recognizes the need for monetary means before marriage is plausible (Austen, p. 716). Take, for example, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion: when Captain Wentworth first proposes when Anne is 19, she refuses him based on the counsel of her friend Lady Russell. One of the reasons for her refusal is his lack of income. He had not yet made his fortune in the British navy. Eight years later, they are able to marry when he has a stable income.
Taking after her family’s love of word puzzles, Austen wrote many during her lifetime. One speaks of the importance of money in relation to marriage:
You may lie on my first on the side of a stream,
And my second compose to the nymph you adore,
But if, when you’ve none of my whole, her esteem
And affection diminish — think of her no more!
The answer to this puzzle is “banknote”. Esteem for a woman is good, but without money the man should not think he can truly win her hand.
As mentioned earlier, Austen’s treatment of poor characters also give us insight to her opinions on wealth and charity. There are two very important poorer characters in her later novels: Miss Bates from Emma and Mrs. Smith from Persuasion. First let’s examine Miss Bates’ position and impact.
Miss Bates is an old maid who lives with her near-deaf mother in a small cottage in Highbury. She is described as follows:
“[Miss Bates] enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, or married. Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her, into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness, quick-sighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself.”
[Austen, p. 698]
This description of Miss Bates shows a woman who, despite her poor station in life, was nevertheless extremely content. She managed to live, and live happily, with the cards she was dealt. This “contented temper” was a true virtue in Austen’s eyes. Her own nephew, in his Memoir, says that “[another] nephew of hers used to observe that his visits to Chawton, after the death of his aunt Jane, were always a disappointment to him. From old associations he could not help expecting to be particularly happy in that house; and never till he got there could he realize to himself how all its peculiar charm was gone. It was not only that the chief light in the house was quenched, but that the loss of it had cast a shade over the spirits of the survivors.” Miss Bates was similarly a light in the town of Highbury in Austen’s Emma. No one spoke of her but with goodwill and she was liked by everyone. Miss Bates had no regrets and held no grudges. Her “contented temper” – that “mine of felicity to herself” – has made her one of Austen’s happiest characters. This is an interesting irony, considering her social and financial position. Miss Bates was unmarried and very poor; yet she was happy. Her character displays Austen’s opinion of happiness: it is not dependent on wealth, it may be found only in yourself.
The impact of Miss Bates’ character is also not trivial. She has eyes and ears and uses them well: she is quick to see things other characters do not, such as Emma’s feelings for Knightley and the reason behind Frank Churchill’s frequent visits to the Bates’ home. It is also an incident involving Miss Bates which creates a turning point in Austen’s novel. When Emma makes a cruel joke at Miss Bates’ expense, it is this event that provokes Knightley into his severest lecture to Emma, resulting in a change of heart and ways for Emma Woodhouse (Austen, p. 1094).
Another character who is poor, happy, and of great import to the story is Mrs. Smith from Austen’s Persuasion. It is Persuasion that Austen completed several months before her death. Mrs. Smith is a thirty-one year old widow whose monetary status does not diminish her happiness:
[Mrs. Smith] was a widow, and poor. Her husband had been extravagant; and at his death, about two years before, had left his affairs dreadfully involved. She had had difficulties of every sort to contend with, and in addition to these distresses had been afflicted with a severe rheumatic fever, which, finally settling in her legs, had made her for the present a cripple. She had come to Bath on that account, and was now in lodgings near the hot baths, living in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society…Anne found in Mrs. Smith the good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend on, and a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond her expectation. Neither the dissipations of the past — and she had lived very much in the world — nor the restrictions of the present, neither sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits…here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.
(Austen, p. 1438-9)
This passage shows again Austen’s great opinion of personal happiness. This happiness is found within; a few are blessed with an ability to be happy and content with what they have. Anne’s reflection of Mrs. Smith’s innate ability to be happy also reflects Austen’s opinion that it is an excellent trait, and well worth envying. In fact, beyond this, Mrs. Smith also worries for those poorer than herself, and knits bags. As she tells the heroine, Anne Elliot, she then sells these to her nurse’s rich clients and uses the profits for charity to others.
Mrs. Smith, like Miss Bates, plays a central role in Austen’s novel. In Persuasion, Mrs. Smith is responsible for revealing Mr. Elliot’s true character to Anne, albeit after Anne has disclosed she will not marry him. Mrs. Smith’s relationship with Mr. Elliot is also a key plot point, as Mr. Elliot fails to stabilize Mrs. Smith’s financial state by successfully fulfilling his job as executor of the late Mr. Smith’s will. This piques Anne’s outrage against Mr. Elliot, and she later enlists Captain Wentworth, her eventual husband, to help the good Mrs. Smith (Austen, p. 1507).
Despite their importance to the plot of their respective novels, it is Austen’s treatment of the characters of Miss Bates and Mrs. Smith that is interesting to note. As mentioned earlier, Austen holds a personal ability to be happy with the cards one is dealt in high esteem. She herself was capable of this happiness. Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra are full of little jokes based on everyday life, and her nephew’s memoir speaks of how much she delighted her nieces and nephews whenever they visited Chawton. Austen also never really complained of her illness in the last year or so of her life. She reported occasional headaches and tiredness in her letters, but they are not rife with complaints. Even in her final hours, as Cassandra notes in her letter to their niece Fanny, Austen barely complains of her pain and wants only death to comfort her (Letters, Le Faye, p. 344). In Austen’s novels, no harm comes to the characters of Mrs. Smith and Miss Bates. Those who wronged them are righted: Emma apologizes to Miss Bates and corrects her ways, and Mrs. Smith’s finances are set aright by Captain Wentworth. Other characters surrounding Miss Bates and Mrs. Smith admire their happiness and contentedness, and no one speaks of either without kindness. These points show that Austen respected this type of woman and could feel an affinity with them. Austen writes to her sister Cassandra in December 1808 that she “thought it all over – & inspite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that [she] was quite as happy now as [fifteen years earlier]” (Letters, Le Faye, p. 157).
Another issue surrounding wealth in Austen’s last novel and her unfinished work, Sanditon, is the shift in the kinds of wealth. No longer were only landed gentry wealthy; in fact, their claim on the title “wealthy” was waning. Instead, the beginnings of capitalism in England were creating a very wealthy merchant class. Naval officers, those who made their fortune on the seas through their patriotism, were also held in high esteem. These two classes of people are well represented in Austen’s final works. In Persuasion, the hero is Captain Wentworth: his suit is originally rejected by Anne Elliot due to his unstable future, but he makes his fortune in the Navy and, eight years later, is able to marry Anne. In Sanditon, there are many merchants who help build up the town and want it to be a seaside resort town – one based on tourism, bathing, and shopping. Meanwhile, the titled Sir Elliot of Kellynch-Hall in Persuasion must rent out his estate and deal with his mounting debt. Austen’s key point regarding this shift in wealth is to understand who your real family and friends are: for Anne Elliot, she must disregard her biological, titled family, and finds true happiness in the “family” of the Navy with Captain Wentworth. Austen’s focus isn’t on being the wealthiest and, therefore being happiest. Contentment stems from being happy with what you have and living within your means. Living outside one’s means, as in the case of Sir Elliot and other characters in Austen’s earlier novels, leads only to discontent and frustration.
The last year of Austen’s life was, in fact, a financially stable one. Her health fluctuated, but her letters to her sister and others show a contented woman who enjoyed visits from her family and was happily writing in her spare time. Austen never married; she dealt with financial difficulties and was never in her lifetime very wealthy in the monetary sense. Yet her own cheerfulness of nature was a mine of felicity to herself, just like Miss Bates. And her novels reveal her opinions on wealth and the use of it: in Austen’s mind, comfort, living within one’s means, and being contented with your life were of the utmost importance. Those characters who exemplify these traits are happiest in Austen’s novels and remain so through the end.
Austen, Jane. The Complete Novels. New York: Penguin Books. 2006.
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen’s Letters, New Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Third Edition. 1995.
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. Second Edition. 1989, 2004.