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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, October 21, 2013

If I Were a Rich Girl: Marianne & Elinor Dashwood (& Jane Austen) on Wealth & Happiness

In Chapter 17 of S&S, there is a discussion of wealth and its relationship to happiness amongst Marianne, Edward and Elinor which has not, as I recall, ever received much attention amongst Janeites. Here it is:

[Marianne] “…What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?"
"Grandeur has but little," said Elinor, "but wealth has much to do with it."
"Elinor, for shame!" said Marianne, "money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned."
"Perhaps," said Elinor, smiling, "we may come to the same point. YOUR competence and MY wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?"
"About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than THAT."
Elinor laughed. "TWO thousand a year! ONE is my wealth! I guessed how it would end."
"And yet two thousand a-year is a very moderate income," said Marianne. "A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less."
Elinor smiled again, to hear her sister describing so accurately their future expenses at Combe Magna.
"Hunters!" repeated Edward—"but why must you have hunters? Every body does not hunt."
Marianne coloured as she replied, "But most people do."
"I wish," said Margaret, striking out a novel thought, "that somebody would give us all a large fortune apiece!"
"Oh that they would!" cried Marianne, her eyes sparkling with animation, and her cheeks glowing with the delight of such imaginary happiness.
"We are all unanimous in that wish, I suppose," said Elinor, "in spite of the insufficiency of wealth."
"Oh dear!" cried Margaret, "how happy I should be! I wonder what I should do with it!"
Marianne looked as if she had no doubt on that point.
"I should be puzzled to spend so large a fortune myself," said Mrs. Dashwood, "if my children were all to be rich my help."
"You must begin your improvements on this house," observed Elinor, "and your difficulties will soon vanish."
"What magnificent orders would travel from this family to London," said Edward, "in such an event! What a happy day for booksellers, music-sellers, and print-shops! You, Miss Dashwood, would give a general commission for every new print of merit to be sent you—and as for Marianne, I know her greatness of soul, there would not be music enough in London to content her. And books!—Thomson, Cowper, Scott—she would buy them all over and over again: she would buy up every copy, I believe, to prevent their falling into unworthy hands; and she would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree. Should not you, Marianne? Forgive me, if I am very saucy. But I was willing to shew you that I had not forgot our old disputes."
"I love to be reminded of the past, Edward—whether it be melancholy or gay, I love to recall it—and you will never offend me by talking of former times. You are very right in supposing how my money would be spent—some of it, at least—my loose cash would certainly be employed in improving my collection of music and books."
"And the bulk of your fortune would be laid out in annuities on the authors or their heirs."
"No, Edward, I should have something else to do with it."
"Perhaps, then, you would bestow it as a reward on that person who wrote the ablest defence of your favourite maxim, that no one can ever be in love more than once in their life—your opinion on that point is unchanged, I presume?"
"Undoubtedly. At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should now see or hear any thing to change them."  END QUOTE

What struck me in particular today in this passage are the following:

ONE: Just as I have in the past claimed that Sholom Aleichem must’ve had Pride & Prejudice  in mind as he wrote his stories about Tevye  the Milkman and his wife and daughters, so too I now believe that he had the above passage in mind when he wrote Tevye’s fantasies which were eventually adapted into “If I were a rich man” in Fiddler.

TWO: I had not previously noticed Edward’s ironical attribution to Marianne of a fantasy to create annuities for the benefit of her favorite authors and composers, if she were a rich girl. It of course  reflects back with the darkest irony on Fanny Dashwood’s rant about the evils of annuities in Chapter 2. It strikes me that this really was something Jane Austen still thought about for herself, even as she finally achieved the long-sought goal of publication in 1811 at age 35. She hardly became rich from that publication, as we all know, and so I think it no coincidence that JA put the following cruel words in Fanny Dashwood’s mouth:

"…if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it.”

Reading Edward’s altruistic fantasy alongside his sister’s avaricious fantasy, as I believe JA meant us to  do, we realize that JA herself, in 1811, was “hardly forty”---but we also know that, tragically, JA did not fulfill Fanny’s dread, as she lived only a year and a half after reaching forty.

I do believe JA in her own views combined the best wisdom of Elinor and Mariannes—JA well  understood, as Elinor  did, that happiness became much more difficult to achieve when one lacked the money to live even a moderately comfortable life—and yet, for an artist, happiness was the freedom to create without having to be consumed with money worries.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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