THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 44, Spring 2013

William A. McEachern, Editor


"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Thus begins Pride and Prejudice, one of the most acclaimed works of English fiction. Published two hundred years ago this past January, Jane Austen's novel offers rich insight into the social and economic structure of her times. Indeed, W.H. Auden, in his poem "Letter to Lord Byron," seemed surprised that Austen would

    Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
    The economic basis of society.

Many of us know the story: the Bennets have five daughters but no son and heir. In the opening pages, Austen lays out their situation : "Mr. Bennet's property consisted almost entirely in an estate [yielding] two thousand [pounds] a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs male, on a distant relation..." (Project Gutenberg EBook, p. 18). Thus, none of the five daughters could inherit any of the father's estate. One driving force of the novel is the mother's singular focus on marrying off her five daughters as quickly and as successfully as possible, displaying the economics of the marriage market in Georgian England.

Austen delineates the finest distinctions among households based on their annual income, the source of that income, and how that income gets spent-homes, servants, grounds, food, dress, carriages. The story is filled with people who seemed to know with great precision the annual income generated by each estate in the region. The novel tells us much about the economic choices of the day. For example, because of the high cost of travel in money and in time (the book appeared more than a decade before the railroad arrived), even someone with a comfortable income could not afford many trips to destinations just fifty miles away. Thus, when people visited friends and relatives in outlying locales, they often stayed for weeks, and these long stays help drive Austen's plot.

Pride and Prejudice seems more popular than ever (the setup of the PBS hit series Downton Abbey mirrors P&P, absent the downstairs portion of the upstairs-downstairs narrative). The novel has been made into many movies. The most recent (with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet), while largely faithful to the book, diverts briefly in a way that may interest us as teachers. In that movie, as in the novel, William Collins, the distant cousin, clergyman, and male heir to the Bennet estate, comes across through his dialogue as a bore. But the movie adds a scene not in the book showing Collins as he drones on from the pulpit before his long-suffering Church of England parishioners. That scene is unnecessary. We knew he would be a dull public speaker from his conversations. That reminded me that we usually get a pretty good idea how engaging someone would be as a public speaker (and instructor) just from our personal interactions. Austen knew that better than the recent screenwriter.

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