Economic metaphor

Jane Austen does not shy away from mentioning money in her novels. In fact, the monetary value of her characters is very publically and precisely stated. There is a thread of economic metaphor which runs through all her novels and is crucial to our understanding of Persuasion.

How a character manages money is an index of their character. Characters in Persuasion with good economic sense also have good moral sense. Anne, Lady Elliot, Lady Russell, Mrs. Harville and Mrs. Croft are all shown to be good managers of their money.

Those who are shallowly materialistic are also morally shallow since a person's financial health was indicative of their moral health:

  • Sir Walter and Elizabeth are deeply in debt because they have spent beyond their means to satisfy their vanity
  • Although William Elliot is wealthy, he has a history of being reckless with money. He was a fortune-hunter and married his wife for money, not love. After borrowing money from Mr. Smith, he does not help him out when Mr. Smith becomes poor, and he refuses to help Mrs. Smith as the executor of her husband's will.

Interestingly, when Anne falls in love with Captain Wentworth he is described as ‘spending freely' and thus had not saved money. This is usually not the case with Austen's heroes. His confidence that he will be rich in the future does come to fruition, and there is no suggestion that his spending will cause them trouble in the future after they are married.

A biblical approach to money

Jane Austen's beliefs about the use of money were based on the biblical principles which she would have heard from her clergyman father:

  • Sir Walter cannot give Anne her full dowry because he has misspent his wealth, which goes against the principle that, ‘A good man leaves an inheritance for his children's children'. (Proverbs 13:22)
  • Mr. Smith lends money to Mr. Elliot and comes to ruin, ignoring the counsel that, ‘He who puts up security for another will surely suffer'. (Proverbs 11:15)
  • One of Sir Walter's flaws is that he owes money with no thought for his creditors, ‘The wicked borrow and do not repay'. (Psalms 37:21)
  • Anne's generosity of nature means that, whilst prudent, she gives freely and prospers. By contrast, the mean-minded Sir Walter and Elizabeth withhold and are seen to suffer, demonstrating that, ‘One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.' (Proverbs 11: 24)

Money and judgement

Sir Walter esteems the Dalrymples because they are wealthy, but despises Mrs. Smith because of her poverty. In both the Old and new Testaments this is condemned:

If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here's a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there' … have you not discriminated amongst yourselves and become judges with evil thought?' (James 2: 3-4).

By contrast, Anne sees through the false glamour of wealth with a truer understanding of character.

For more on the ideas which shaped Austen's society, see Poverty and wealth, Work and idleness.

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