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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Adam Smith in Sense & Sensibility as well as in Pride & Prejudice.

It’s been 4 years since I first became aware of the substantial Adam Smith allusions hidden in plain sight in Pride & Prejudice, mostly (and ironically) expressed by Mary Bennet, whom I have long seen as both a self portrait by Jane Austen of her younger self, and also as a veiled representation of Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary only appears to be a pedant, because we see her through the eyes of sister Elizabeth, who thinks herself intellectually and psychologically superior to Mary, even though it is Mary who is by far the more avid reader, and it is Mary who is not the slave of her first impressions:
Here are some of my earlier posts on these topics:

I tell you all of that as prelude to alerting you all to the presence on the online Austen scholarly scene of a brilliant  writer and scholar, Shannon Chamberlain. As evidence for this high praise, I refer you to the following two related articles written by her on the subject of the veiled Adam Smith allusions in Sense & Sensibility:

In addition to making this wonderful and important catch in S&S, what is equally, if not more, impressive is Chamberlain’s writing skill—there is a light bright and sparkling quality to her witty intelligent writing style that could not be more appropriate for discussion of JA’s ideas. Even though her content is decidedly wonky, there is not even the remotest whiff of litcrit jargon.

Here is an example from Chamberlain’s more recent above linked article, which actually connects to my claims about Mary Bennet as a disciple of Adam Smith:  
“Smith, who sought to reconcile a kind of genial 18th-century deism with the precepts of the established Churches of Scotland and England, summarized the matter thus: “As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbor, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor is capable of loving us.” We might, if we listen closely, hear a slight echo in bookish Mr. Bennet’s philosophy: “For what do we live for but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” “

I found myself immediately convinced that the echo of Smith that Chamberlain heard in Mr. Bennet’s bon mot was indeed intended by JA to be heard by her well-read readers, and it also fits perfectly with what we know about the Bennet household—the only two members of the family who spend serious hours in the home library are Mr. Bennet and the daughter he loved to ridicule, at times cruelly—Mary—they were the ones who read Adam Smith, and read him with understanding. Which tells us that at least part of Mr. Bennet’s nastiness to Mary is actually a projection of his own self-hatred that he cannot acknowledge?

Anyway, Chamberlain’s arguments about the Adam Smith allusion in S&S bolsters my seeing Mary Bennet’s reading of Adam Smith as informing her whispered warnings to sister Elizabeth. Here’s how I put it 4 years ago:

“Mary Bennet as an alter ego for Jane Austen, and one of my strongest points was quoting from parallel passages from Mary’s speeches and from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, to show that Mary Bennet is actually voicing a strong critique of the allure of wealth to those who are not wealthy, i.e., a veiled warning to Elizabeth Bennet to be careful not to be seduced by the grandeur of Pemberley.”

I also want to comment on one of the textual examples from S&S that Chamberlain picks up on, which is that she (correctly) identifies Robert Ferrars’s time-consuming quest for just the right toothpick-case as a sly allusion, with a slight tweak of the frivolous item being bought, to a famous example from Smith’s great book. My experience interpreting Jane Austen’s allusions tells me that she wasn’t just careless in quoting, she repeatedly changed a word from a quoted text for a very specific purpose.

In this case, I am certain that Jane Austen wanted Robert Ferrars’s quest for a toothpick-case to resonate not only to that passage in Smith, as Chamberlain so aptly showed, but JA also wanted to add a very Freudian overlay to that allusion—specifically, she is calling Robert Ferrars’s masculinity into question, and what better symbol of that than a “toothpick” in search of a “case” to keep it in –and then Robert finds that “toothpick-case”, eventually, in the person of Lucy Steele aka Lucy Ferrars aka Lucifer!–read this post at my blog for an unpacking of that idea:

And finally, this all makes me revisit my many prior posts about the representation of James and Mary Austen’s  greedy acquisition of the Steventon household wealth in 1801, in the famous Chapter 2 of S&S when we read Fanny Dashwood lead her husband  by the nose into a similarly rapacious course of action toward his stepmother and half sisters. I bet JA had her eldest brother in mind, as that same poor son who spent his life seeking to curry favor with rich relatives and obtain wealth at the expense of needful sisters and mother—JA  was saying to James, in effect, this is you, the one Adam Smith wrote about!

To sum up, then, before today I had no idea that Jane Austen was already engaged fully with Smith’s great work in Sense & Sensibility, published 2 years before P&P, so I thank Shannon Chamberlain for making that very clear!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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