Academic journal article Independent Review

Piketty Misreads Austen

Academic journal article Independent Review

Piketty Misreads Austen

Article excerpt

Thomas Piketty's best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) uses literary references to reinforce its main theme, and from the outset he says that nineteenth-century novels are helpful in understanding relative wealth in those times and ours. Together with Balzac's work, he claims, "the novels of Jane Austen . . . paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain . . . between 1790 and 1830," "grasp[] the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments," and "depict[] the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match" (2).1

This article argues, however, that, despite how interesting such a use of Austen's works might be, Piketty disappointingly presents a distorted picture of them. Austen, in fact, recognized that the society of her time was much more dynamic and mobile than Piketty suggests. Piketty also ignores Adam Smith, who is present in Jane Austen's works through a key principle of his theory of conduct and economic growth: human beings do not strive to be equal but to be better.

The Patrimonial Society

In order to prove that Austen's world was "the classic patrimonial society," Piketty repeatedly recalls an episode in one of her books that conveys the idea that, as in the old zero-sum fallacy, wealth is not created but only inherited and disputed. Accordingly, entailment

was the reason for the misfortune of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility: the Norland estate passed directly to their father and half-brother, John Dashwood, who decided, after considering the matter with his wife, Fanny, to leave them nothing. The fate of the two sisters is a direct consequence of this sinister conversation. In Persuasion, Sir Walter's estate goes directly to his nephew, by-passing his three daughters. Jane Austen, herself disfavored by inheritance and left a spinster along with her sister, knew what she was talking about. (362)

This last remark overlooks the well-known fact that Jane Austen had received in 1802 a marriage proposal by a rich heir and turned it down, though she was far from being wealthy (MacDonagh 1991, 39-40). She would later achieve success as a writer, but she did not live much longer, dying in 1817 at the age of forty-one. In any case, she did not want to be an amateur: "being a professional writer was, apart from her family, more important to her than anything else in her life" (Fergus 2011, 2). Like her heroines, she was a woman who chose freedom, knew the value of money, dwelled profusely on the subjects in her novels, and refused to marry without love (Austen 1982, henceforth WJA, 369; see also 911).

Piketty's point, however, is not the novelist's life but the notion that at the core of the world of her writings is a large, petrified, and unavoidable inequality. As the rich were a "fairly numerous social group" (411), he tries to sidestep this difficulty, arguing that their wealth "was totally out of reach for anyone content to practice a profession, no matter how well it paid" (619), an absurd statement that Piketty himself qualifies, albeit in a footnote: you could, after all, acquire a certain fortune through your work (412 n. 37).2

He chooses to focus on Sense and Sensibility, a story in which, unlike others by Austen, the protagonists do not work (MacDonagh 1991, 43). This facilitates Piketty's theme that wealth is something that you merely have and do not earn and that this situation does not change: "In Sense and Sensibility, the kernel of the plot (financial as well as psychological) is established in the first ten pages in the appalling dialogue between John Dashwood and his wife, Fanny" (413). It is true that John and Fanny become very rich by inheriting Norland, which brings them four thousand pounds a year. Other characters live pretty well with much less; the limit appears to be six hundred pounds ( WJA, 691-92, 915), the annuity received by John Willoughby: "this is no doubt the reason why he soon abandons Marianne," remarks Piketty, as if his abandonment has to do exclusively with wealth and not with personal traits. …

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