Sunday, 29 May 2016

McCloskey's Use of Jane Austen

The last few weeks have been intense. Definitely uni-wise, but I have also attended various high-profile speakers holding amazing lectures in Sydney. Some kind of Amazing Coincidence brought three brilliant speakers within my reach, and I spent way too much time reading and writing about their work rather than continuing my journey through the Tome placed on top of my bedside table pile: Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality.

As I expected, the proof for her remarkable story took a few hundred pages before they started to arrive. Or, pieces of the puzzle, I should say, since presumably they become proofs supporting her story only when taken together. Since one of them involves Jane Austen, and I've spent some of my recent post-uni-work cooling down with Pride & Prejudice, here's a recount (watch Mr. Collins' proposal to the protagonist Elisabeth or re-read the beginning of chapter 19 for background):

McCloskey's story of the bourgeois revaluation is a story of changing rhetoric and beliefs towards the morality of trade, of innovation, of being a merchant and earning money by serving costumers - and it's a story of virtues balanced by one another, rather than the mainstream economists of the last 50 years, considering Prudence-Only by conceiving everything as a smooth utility function to maximise. To show that such a social and rhetorical change meaningfully did occur in the late 18th century and early 19th century, she uses Austen's immense ironies and silly bi-characters for illustration. In considering Mr. Collins' altogether unloving proposal to Elisabeth, McCloskey argues that Austen embraced her story (and Adam Smith's story) of balancing virtues and ultimately created characters to reflect that (or the lack thereof). Mr. Collins' proposal is essentially an outcome of a neoclassical utility function that Paul Samuelson's and Gary Becker's Economics would have approved of; Prudence-Only by discarding every other virtue, and maximize one's utility function accordingly:
My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly -- which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. (Ch. 19, Pride and Prejudice
Moreover, in her typically Austen-like manner, every description conveys more than one message. In describing Elizabeth's uncle, Austen is clearly mocking the upper-classes and indirectly approving of regular tradesmen such as Mr. Gardiner:
Mr. Gardiner was a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister [Elisabeth's rather hysterical mother], as well by nature as education. The Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well-bred and agreeable. (Ch. 25, Pride and Prejudice)
For Austen to write so approvingly about a character in the trades, when her contemporary writers almost always carried an "antitrade snobbery" (p. 158) towards merchants and manufacturers in their writings, is to support McCloskey's argument (p. 166):
Jane Austen is here strikingly bourgeois, understanding the word as praiseworthy, not merely another word for 'vulgar and greedy'. In a business-respecting civilization - which I am suggesting Jane Austen stood smiling at the doorway of - the bourgeois is highly honoured for his sense.
Admittedly, this is incredibly weak. Especially considering that Austen's novels was read by very few people and had very little impact during her life - even if the interpretation of Austens' novels and her letters is correct, it doesn't really lend much support to McCloskey's overall story. I'm sure McCloskey will hammer home the message over the next 400 pages, gradually giving me more reason to completely embrace the social and rhetoric change she emphasises.  

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