Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. Lately I've been placing Jane Austen's novels in the context of other novels written during the same period. Click here for the first in the series.
"And you know there is generally an uncle or a grandfather to leave a fortune to the second son.” [says Mary Crawford]
“A very praiseworthy practice,” said Edmund, “but not quite universal. I am one of the exceptions, and being one, must do something for myself.”
-- Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Money could be an important plot driver. Mr. Wickham turns his attentions from Lizzie Bennet to Mary King after Miss King acquires ten thousand pounds. Willoughby betrays Marianne Dashwood for Miss Grey and her fifty thousand pounds.
Even beyond romance, money dictates the opportunities for Austen's characters. Anne Elliot's father is a spendthrift, so the family must rent their estate and move to Bath. The poverty of Miss Bates and Mrs. Smith affects the roles they play in Emma and Persuasion respectively.
An 1809 novel, The Bristol Heiress or, the Errors of Education, begins with: "Mr. Percival was the only surviving branch of a genteel, but not opulent family in the neighbourhood of Bristol, whose pride he inherited, but whose virtues he had never studied to emulate. He had early married the only daughter and heiress of a rich banker of that place—a marriage calculated to remedy the deficiencies of his fortune, but by no means to add lustre to his connexions.” We then learn that Mr. Percival is anxious that his daughter make a brilliant marriage, preferably to someone with a title. But there is a handsome but poor young clergyman to contend with...
Elizabeth Staples in Infatuation, or Sketches from Nature (1810) is the daughter of a wealthy merchant. She is cut out of her father's will by her maneuvering stepmother and only receives two thousand pounds upon her marriage to Captain Woodford. After she is widowed, she lives quietly with her daughter Emma, who falls in love with Augustus Sinclair. Augustus "is the son of a gentleman dependent entirely on an estate which he enjoyed in right of his wife, and which at his death would revert to her relations; knowing this, Mr. Sinclair was particularly anxious that Augustus should apply diligently to the study of the law, a profession in which his connexions gave him hope of advancement…” Unfortunately Augustus only wants to be a poet, a sure ticket to poverty.
In Infatuation, Mrs. Woodford thought she had lost her son Edward at sea, but he reappears in the second volume, and learns that the uncle of the girl he loves has died and left her an immense fortune. Augustus the poet also has some good news to share: “You and I Edward,” continued he, “ought to erect a temple, dedicated to the memory of rich old uncles, for I am sure we are both under the greatest obligation to their honoured manes; as you will confess, when you call Adelaide your own, and hear what my old honest curmudgeon had done for me.”
Austen does not resort to rich uncles popping up out of nowhere or dying at convenient times. In fact, she lampoons the convenient family reunion in her juvenile parody, Love and Freindship when Lord St. Clair accidentally encounters four of his grandchildren, one after the other, at an inn. instead of lavishing his fortune on them, he gives each of them 50 pounds: "Take them and remember I have done the Duty of a Grandfather.” Austen wrote: "He instantly left the Room and immediately afterwards the House."
Austen uses timely death on two occasions; Frank Churchill is free to marry Jane Fairfax after his disagreeable adoptive mother dies, and Elinor Tilney can marry when the man she loves becomes an heir thanks to the death of his older brother. This marriage in turn enables her brother to marry Catherine Morland.
So what other solutions does Austen use? A clergyman of modest means is obliged to his rich brother-in-law for his clerical living. This happens in Mansfield Park (for Mr. Norris) as well as in Sense & Sensibility. Wickham is bribed to marry Lydia. Edward Ferrars and Elinor Dashwood negotiate with Mrs. Ferrars. Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney will have enough to live comfortably and there is the expectation of an inheritance from her friends the Allens. Captain Wentworth acquired his fortune by being a pirate on behalf of his country. He gets a share of the bounty from the ships he's captured, also known as prize money.
In various ways, therefore, the money issues of Austen's characters are resolved by the end of the novel, but money is seldom their biggest problem. Arguably money is the main problem for the Dashwood sisters and Jane Fairfax. Pride versus prejudice is of course the impediment for Elizabeth and Darcy, followed by the problem of Lydia's behaviour. Captain Wentworth's resentment keeps him apart from Anne Elliot even after he's solved his money and status problems. The allure of another woman is the main impediment for Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. Catherine Morland was neither as rich nor as poor as General Tilney thought: "in no sense of the word were [the Morlands] necessitous or poor, and... Catherine would have three thousand pounds." As for Emma Woodhouse, her biggest problem is her self-delusion, followed by her resolution not to abandon her hypochondriacal father.
Characters like this are known as static characters. The forces keeping them from their happy ending are not internal faults or conflicts. Therefore, their authors need external problems like a lack of money. In Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake (1790), the heroine falls hopelessly in love with the handsome Charles Montgomery, but both of them are poor. Their dilemma is canvassed repeatedly throughout the novel. “[T]he more tenderly I am attached to him," Ethelinde explains, "the more resolutely I feel myself able to reject him, and to refuse what would certainly not make him happy since, were we to marry, situated as we now are, we should feel with redoubled force all the inconveniences of a narrow fortune, or the misery of separating to avoid them. I am not myself afraid of poverty, but much afraid of seeing the fairer prospects of Montgomery blasted by his participating in my indigence.”
A rich uncle shows up in due course, but Charlotte Smith's novels are notable for their extended angst. Montgomery has already gone off to India to make his fortune, and is lost in a shipwreck on the way back and presumed drowned. (Spoiler alert: there is a happy ending).
Mary Donald's father in Motherless Mary (1827) is off in India when his wife dies and little Mary is sent off to the poorhouse. Years later, through a happy coincidence, Mary is reunited with her father, who is now wealthy, and she can marry the man she loves.
Unlike these all-virtuous heroines, Austen's heroines are not always static characters. Elizabeth Bennett, Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood, and Catherine Morland grow and change during the course of their stories. Jane Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot and Fanny Price change the least; they must stoically endure the problems that life hands them. Even with these heroines, however, money is not the only issue; social class certainly plays a part here as well. Austen does not place as much emphasis on money as the other writers I've mentioned.
If Austen doesn't use a sudden windfall as a plot device, does this mean she takes a more realistic view of money, or a critical one? Does she bring up money problems as a form of social commentary or social protest? Next post.
The rich uncles who popped up out of nowhere usually come from the East or West Indies. The British sugar colonies provided novelists with a convenient source of windfall inheritances. You could acquire a large fortune without having estates in the UK or a noble family tree. Being a West Indian planter still placed you higher on the social scale than if you made your money in trade, although 18th century novels often portrayed West Indians as vulgar upstarts with crude manners. As well, very often authors packed their characters off to the East or West Indies to get them out of England for plot purposes, as in the case of Motherless Mary and many other stories. But the notable thing is that the deus ex machina rich-uncle-leaving-his-fortune trope is not attended with reflections on the immoral source of the wealth.
Elizabeth Helme uses a rich uncle in her novel Modern Times (1814), as does Barbara Hofland in The Merchant's Widow (1814). "The Rich Indian" by Jane Gardiner, tells a rich uncle story from the point of view of the rich uncle himself. The rich uncle returns from the East Indies and meets his three nieces, his only living relatives. One is a selfish miser, another likes to make a public show of her charity, but Sophia lives in a retired village and spends her time helping the poor. She, of course, receives the uncle's fabulous wealth which enables her to marry the man she loves and live happily ever after. The emphasis is on the moral lesson taught to the sisters who miss out on the fortune, and there are no moral reflections on the source of the fortune. The "Rich Indian" appears in the second volume of Gardiner's An Excursion from London to Dover (1806), a book filled with references to Christianity and faith.
While the Bertrams of Mansfield Park have income from the West Indies and Mrs. Norris makes references to difficulties with the "Antigua estate," Austen does not use the Bertram's income from the West Indies as a plot solution in the sense of a rich uncle arriving with a convenient fortune. There is no West Indian fortune showered on Fanny and in fact, we are given very little information about Sir Thomas's "estate" in Antigua. But sending people to a distant part of the globe was a very common plot device in 18th century novels and in Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas's absence is essential to the plot.