Starting last December and continuing through this year, literary enthusiasts around the world have been celebrating the 200th anniversary of Emma, Jane Austen’s novel about an independent young woman of fortune and her attempts to make successful romantic matches for her friends and, to her surprise, for herself. To say it’s had staying power would be an understatement, as it is still widely read and has been the subject of a BBC TV series as well as countless movies, including the 1990s update, Clueless.
Among the various themes featured in most of Austen’s works, money typically weaves its way throughout the stories she tells. And this makes sense considering the author’s life. Born the seventh of eight children, she was brought up in a family with limited means. Since she never married, she depended on her family and lived with them for her entire life—first with her mother, father and sister and then, after her father’s death, with various family members and finally with her brother at his house in Chawton.
There’s actually quite a bit of helpful financial advice to be gained from reading her books. Here are just a few examples:
- Live within your means. Time and time again, the characters who are most prudent with their fortunes have the best outcomes at the end of the stories. Clearly, a wealthy landowner like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice has a much easier time than say, Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, who only has a modest church living. But both of these men are seen as making wise decisions with regard to their financial situations, resulting in prosperity and happy marriages.
Conversely, those who are profligate spenders, such as Sir Walter Elliott in Persuasion, are usually the characters that are the most insufferable. Austen shows his foolishness through the eyes of her story’s heroine, as Anne Elliott watches her father amass more and more debt in order to live the aristocratic life he feels entitled to according to his rank.
- At the same time, don’t be stingy. Austen isn’t easy on those who hoard their money at the expense of those in need either. Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility come to mind, as they discuss the inheritance that the Dashwood girls and their mother are to receive. Gradually, they go from offering each woman one thousand pounds apiece to offering them nothing at all. Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park is another such antagonist, of whom Austen says, “her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.”
- If you have wealth, use it to help those who are less fortunate. Many of the major turning points in Austen’s novels are built around this theme. In Emma, Mr. Knightley harshly criticizes Emma when she openly ridicules the tedious but pitiable Miss Bates, who depends on the charity of others to support herself and her elderly mother. And in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy helps Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Lydia avoid disgrace by paying off the debts of her lover (and his enemy), Mr. Wickham. Both of these instances ultimately lead to greater self-understanding by the protagonists and, eventually, a successful marriage.
- Money doesn’t solve all your problems. Yes, there are plenty of instances where a wealthy man marrying a woman with less money brings about a happy ending for all concerned. But Austen doesn’t make a rule of it. There are several times where matches that seem advantageous at first turn out disastrous, such as the one between Maria Bertram and Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park. Austen seems to suggest that, if you must choose between love and money, you’ll be better off in the end if you choose love.
Sadly, Austen was always poor and never able to put any of this into practice in her own life. She might as well have been describing herself and her hopes of what might have been when she writes in Emma, “A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.”
But for anyone who controls their own financial destiny, regardless of marital status, she has some good advice to offer.