Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros77La Force du commerceJane Austen’s Emma, Adam Smith’s ...

La Force du commerce

Jane Austen’s Emma, Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’, market capitalism and free-indirect discourse.

Robert Clark


Emma, le roman de Jane Austen, est connu comme l’un des premiers textes à utiliser le discours indirect libre avec une grande finesse, pour représenter avec ironie les jugements souvent erronés d’une héroïne de 21 ans qui joue les entremetteuses. Il est de plus célèbre comme un brillant roman d’amour, ayant donné lieu récemment à de nombreuses imitations. Mais il contient aussi une satire féroce de l’émergence de la classe moyenne et de la pénétration du langage et des valeurs du capitalisme marchand dans la société bourgeoise anglaise. S’appuyant sur les thèses de John Bender (Imagining the Penitentiary) et de Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation), cet essai s’attache à montrer que l’utilisation du discours indirect libre permet à Austen de construire Emma comme un sujet ne comprenant pas sa propre subjectivité, devant apprendre à se percevoir objectivement sous la férule de Mr. Knighley. Ce paradoxe selon lequel le sujet et sa subjectivité doivent se percevoir eux-mêmes objectivement comme des objets interchangeables dans une société capitaliste émane de The Theory of Moral Sentiments d’Adam Smith et, pour ceux qui refusent d’apprendre à s’autoréguler, du panoptique pénitentiaire de Jeremy Bentham.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

The Invention of Free-indirect Discourse; the Objective Subjective

  • 1 In his recent and widely successful Capital and Ideology Thomas Piketty acknowledges his debt to Po (...)

1It is generally agreed that free-indirect discourse first appears in novelistic narration in the period 1790-1815. Some scholars have found precursor instances in earlier writing but most commentators agree that before the publication of Frances Burney’s Camilla in 1796 such instances are short-lived and occasional. After Burney, Jane Austen will make extensive use of free-indirect discourse in the novels she published after 1811 (Pascal; Banfield, Lodge). Indeed Austen’s Emma (1815) is one of the most lauded examples of a discourse which henceforth will become a staple technique of novelists. The invention of free-indirect discourse at this time is contemporaneous with what Karl Polanyi described as “the great transformation” to bourgeois market capitalism from the ancien régime of dynastic aristocratic landed rule, and part of the work of this essay is to propose how these phenomena are historically related. The period of the great transformation described by Polanyi is most generally known by its headline military events: the North American War of Independence (1776-1783), the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars (1789-1815) remade the global order and established the democratic paradigms which govern most of the world today.1 Driving these major military conflicts and political changes lay social factors manifestly in train for at least a hundred years, notably the increasing scale of national and global trade in commodities, a generalised financialisation of daily life (the exponential growth of mercantile credit, banks, stocks and shares and later paper money), enormous increases in personal travel and letters along new turnpike roads and canal systems, increasing use of coal to generate steam power for use in textile factories, new metal technologies, massive enclosure of common land, the consequent dislocation of peasantry and migration to manufacturing employment in towns and cities. In a nutshell, the coming into dominance of capitalist market society and its contingent definition of its citizens as individual owners of property. These fundamental changes entail the production of a new psyche, one less bound by geography, custom, locality or family. As Edmund Burke famously put it when writing about the conversion of French landed property into assignats by the government of revolutionary regime, “all that is solid melts into air”: land, the bedrock of economic value and personal identity, was volatilized, presumed solidities were vaporized (Burke). Divinely sanctioned hierarchical ranks obliging due deference to those above and charity to those below were replaced by competing classes. The term “middle class” was then consciously used as a rallying cry to name the insurgent group (Wahrmann). Society could no longer be taken for granted but must be theorised, as it is by Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo who make the terms “economy” and “political economy” central to the new vocabularies of statecraft and daily life.

  • 2 Several textual instances reveal how the discourse is not yet stable. See for example the free-indi (...)

2How is the development of free-indirect discourse consequent upon this great transformation? The most obvious explanation is nicely captured in the title of Ann Banfield’s book, Unspeakable Sentences: free-indirect discourse is not found in speech, or even letters which presume the formalities of speech; it is found in novels, a genre which having enjoyed increasing sales since 1719 now begins to rival the genre of history writing for cultural dominance.2 This ‘rise of the novel’ would not have been possible without the exponential growth of circulating libraries (1740-1820 in England) which made it possible for these risky new commodities to find a readership of the necessary scale to repay their investors. As the readership of novels expanded, so did the novelistic mentality and its particular technologies. David Lodge provides a succinct and orthodox account when he traces the development in novelistic narration from third-person modes to first-person modes in fictional autobiographies, confessions, diaries or journals and epistolary novels, then to free-indirect discourse which simultaneously appears to combine apparent third-person objectivity with subjective personality. Lodge exemplifies the transition with three specimen sentences:

1) Quoted speech attributed to a character: “‘Is that the clock striking twelve?’ Cinderella exclaimed. ‘Dear me, I shall be late.’”
2) Reported or indirect speech: “Cinderella asked if the clock was striking twelve and expressed a fear that she would be late.”
3) Free-indirect: “Was that the clock striking twelve? She would be late.” (Lodge 37)

3In free-indirect discourse the reader does not know if the character spoke aloud, or just thought these words, but, as Lodge puts it, the reader is granted access to Cinderella’s “silent, private thought, expressed in her own words [...] without the overt mediation of a narrator [...]. The effect is to locate the narrative in Cinderella’s own consciousness.“

4My own way of describing these sentences is that sentence 1 presents an apparently objective situation as it happens, whilst only implicitly admitting through the past tense of “exclaimed” that this happened in another time. Sentence 2 clearly reports something which happened some time ago and translates Cinderella’s spoken words into the author’s words. On the other hand, sentence 3 gives the reader an objective statement of Cinderella’s subjectivity in that it represents her hearing the clock striking noon and concluding that she will miss her appointment. The importance of free-indirect style is that it presents the clock striking and Cinderella’s deduction as similarly (or even equally) objective phenomena. In this objective representation Cinderella’s deduction has not lost its subjective quality, it remains personal and private, and she might be proved wrong (as is often the case in Austen’s ironic representations), but the deep shift that has occurred is that human subjectivity is now represented as an object equal in status to the clock and its striking of the hour: the human subject, in all its apparent depth and complexity, is objectively construed as an object, often with a hint of irony that marks the supposed dividing line between these antithetical states. The experienced reader of Austen will appreciate that the ironic dialectic of subject and object shapes nearly all of her plots and much of her characterisation. Indeed, we could hypothesise that this dialectic is what all her novels are “about”.

5By way of demonstration, let us consider how in the first four chapters of Emma Jane Austen describes how Emma laments her loss of the companionship of Miss Taylor who has been her governess and mother-substitute for the last sixteen years, but recently married Mr. Weston, a retired businessman living nearby. The opening paragraphs show us what free-indirect discourse can achieve:

The want of Miss Taylor would be felt every hour of every day. She recalled her past kindness – the kindness, the affection of sixteen years – how she had taught and how she had played with her from five years old – how she had devoted all her powers to attach and amuse her in health – and how nursed her through the various illnesses of childhood. A large debt of gratitude was owing here; [...].She had been a friend and companion such as few possessed: intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle, knowing all the ways of the family, interested in all its concerns, and peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of hers – one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault. (I.1,4)

6This impersonal, quasi-objective, third-person narration of Emma’s appreciation of Miss Taylor’s kindness to her is permeated with an irony which surfaces most clearly in the phrase “A large debt of gratitude was owing here.” The alert reader might be inclined to pause momentarily and question who contributes this crisp statement of social obligation, couched as it is in the language of finance, which is also found in the discourse of conduct books, sententious fathers and religious sermons? The voices which inspire this phrase seem to lie outside the mentality of the 21-year old Emma, or at least to be introjections of a patriarchal voice (such as Mr Knightley’s) which tries to organise the moral compass of this well-intentioned but rather conceited young lady, one who is largely ignorant of herself and the ways of the world. These voices are not likely in themselves to produce embarrassment, but the intrusion of market thinking with the word “debt”, whilst being quite common in nonconformist preaching, may create a hesitation.

  • 3 This logic is pervasive in subsequent culture. To cite a recent example, it is finely and ironicall (...)

7The gulf between Emma-for-herself and Emma-for-others becomes especially clear a few lines later when the text represents Emma’s appreciation that Miss Taylor had been “peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of hers”. In this sentence the use of the personal possessive pronoun “herself” awakens a profound suspicion in any reader who understands the father’s point of view: surely it is patently narcissistic to be pleased with someone because they take pleasure in pleasing you? (Does not Knightley say precisely this later in the novel?) This dawning realisation retrospectively exposes the cruel impersonal logic of the phrase “A large debt of gratitude was owing here” which implies that Emma, feeling abandoned and neglected by Miss Taylor’s departure, has reduced her relationship to Miss Taylor to a fiduciary obligation. Almost as Marx would later explain, money has become the fetishized token of exchange, encapsulating, repressing and denying Mrs Taylor’s many years of paid labour, not to mention her sincere and non-fiduciary love of Emma.3

8In Chapter 3 we find support for this readerly intuition: seeking to fill the loss created by Miss Taylor’s departure, Emma adopts Harriet Smith, a pupil at Mrs Goddard’s boarding-school. Harriet is described as “a very pretty girl” whose “beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired [...]. short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness” and who for these reasons becomes “an intimate at Hartfield” (I.3, 22). Austen then describes their relationship in a brilliant paragraph which alternates between sentences in the voice of third-person narration representing what any inhabitant of Hatfield might know, and sentences which use free-indirect discourse to represent objectively Emma’s private thoughts:

Harriet Smith’s intimacy at Hartfield was soon a settled thing. Quick and decided in her ways, Emma lost no time in inviting, encouraging, and telling her to come very often; and as their acquaintance increased, so did their satisfaction in each other. As a walking companion, Emma had very early foreseen how useful she might find her. In that respect Mrs. Weston’s loss had been important. Her father never went beyond the shrubbery, where two divisions of the ground sufficed him for his long walk, or his short, as the year varied; and since Mrs. Weston’s marriage her exercise had been too much confined. She had ventured once alone to Randalls, but it was not pleasant; and a Harriet Smith, therefore, one whom she could summon at any time to a walk, would be a valuable addition to her privileges. But in every respect, as she saw more of her, she approved her, and was confirmed in all her kind designs. (I.4, 25)

9Some of these sentences might be considered reported speech: Emma might have said, “I had early foreseen how useful I might find her.” And Emma might have said “I had ventured once alone to Randalls, but it was not pleasant; and a Harriet Smith, therefore, whom I could summon at any time to a walk, would be a valuable addition to my privileges.” However, such sentiments represented in reported speech would strike most readers as snobbish, self-regarding and pompous, rather like the speech of Mrs. Elton in this novel, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. By removing the signs of reported speech, Austen is able to give the reader access to Emma’s apparently private reflections, which, because unsaid, are to an important extent a-social or pre-social, and therefore do not strike the reader with similar force. Free-indirect discourse thus allows a very important distinction: private thoughts (perhaps treasonable, salacious, murderous) have radically different legal and moral status from public statements. They are in some ways considered beyond conscious control. Actual utterances are not, or at least such is the normal juridical view. Utterance or writing transforms the subjective into the objective.

10It is this curious and profound shift that allows the apparently objective representation of Emma’s private thoughts to have a different status from Mrs Elton’s public remarks. In the following representation of Emma’s private thoughts about Harriet, the reader can ‘hear’ Emma’s way of speaking and thinking, and also perceive her betraying herself as a monster of self-regard:

Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition, was totally free from conceit, and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to. Her early attachment to herself was very amiable; and her inclination for good company, and power of appreciating what was elegant and clever, shewed that there was no want of taste, though strength of understanding must not be expected. Altogether she was quite convinced of Harriet Smith’s being exactly the young friend she wanted – exactly the something which her home required. Such a friend as Mrs. Weston was out of the question. Two such could never be granted. Two such she did not want. It was quite a different sort of thing, a sentiment distinct and independent. Mrs. Weston was the object of a regard which had its basis in gratitude and esteem. Harriet would be loved as one to whom she could be useful. For Mrs. Weston there was nothing to be done; for Harriet everything. (I.4, 25)

11Emma’s cruel and unreflective reduction of Harriet to a commodity of a kind one might buy from a mail-order catalogue will become a major theme of the novel, culminating in the moment of anagnorisis during the Box Hill picnic (III.7, 402) when Emma speaks aloud the sort of waspish remarks which are regularly represented as her subjective reflections via the socially safe convention of free-indirect discourse. Once spoken aloud, Emma has to recognise the hurtfulness of her conduct towards Miss Bates. This moment is one of several in the third volume of the novel when Emma begins painfully to understand herself, most saliently when she appreciates how wrong she was to deny that Robert Martin would make a very appropriate husband for Harriet Smith. However, that she is capable of such recognitions saves Emma from Mrs Elton’s fate of being a perpetual social embarrassment. Objective self-awareness, which implies the ability to hear with an inner ear the potential awfulness of one’s own thoughts, is a major lesson of all Austen’s narratives.

Adam Smith and the Impartial Spectator

12The construction of the self which we observe in Emma as internally divided between a wilful ego and an internalised and monitory voice of society begins to appear in British culture through Adam Smith’s widely influential Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, and going through six editions before Smith’s death in 1790 and eleven editions by 1809. Whilst Smith saw his contribution to moral philosophy as a companion to his Theory of the Wealth of Nations (1776), and to a volume on jurisprudence which he did not find time to write, the later work makes no reference to the earlier. Nevertheless it seems reasonable on internal and external grounds to consider the Theory of Moral Sentiments as description of the kind of society imagined in the Wealth of Nations, a largely free, liberal society based on self-interested individualism and free market exchange, limited only by agreed rational laws. For Smith and his contemporaries, such a society was ideally governed by rational discussion and respect for the feelings of others, and his Theory of Moral Sentiments was an aspirational theory of how the self-regulation essential to a free, market society had come into existence and how it could be maintained.

13The core of Smith’s moral theory lay in his construction of a universal human disposition to imaginatively identify with the feelings of others. Smith argued that knowing how it feels to be hurt, the sensible person is discouraged from doing harm to others. Moral values are not innate, but the capacity to build a moral understanding is learned through the experience of observing others, and also by observing how others respond to us. Approbation and disapprobation thus have a central role, and Smith says that we construct “a man within the breast” or “an impartial spectator” who shames us into a better self whenever we behave in a way hurtful to or disdained by others we respect.

14The narrative of Emma exemplifies Smith’s theory in many ways, notably when Emma is rude to Miss Bates, but also in the chiding of Knightley. We can also observe Smith’s theory at work when we abreact to Harriet being used as a mere tool or convenience: we feel the potential hurt in being reduced to “exactly the something her home required”. Treating someone as a merely utilitarian object – as a thing without interiority, emotions and moral value – may have been normalized by capitalist employment relationships but our emotional empathy still advises us to comprehend objectively the full nature of a person, including their emotional, moral and subjective needs, rather than treat them as a mere object of use. The distinction of objectivity from objectivization (i.e. reification) remains hugely important.

15There is no biographical evidence that Austen read Smith, but the frequent reprinting of The Theory of Moral Sentiments indicates the extensive impact of his thought on British culture. Furthermore, agreement with his ideas is found in much of late eighteenth-century conduct literature. Peter Knox-Shaw is the most recent critic to describe the similarity of Smith’s and Austen’s moral thought, noting in particular the resonance between the moral teaching of Emma and Smith’s belief that “If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable” (Knox-Shaw 71, quoting Smith III.I.93; see also Moler; and Michie.). Indeed, according to Smith’s own arguments there would be no need for Austen to read his work since she would naturally deduce such moral sentiments from observing the conduct of others, just as we readers can observe how the admirable characters in her novels learn to be better people whilst those with cloth ears – Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Elton – remain unreformed.

  • 4 Robert Morrison records that on the last day of 1811 a crowd of 10,000 people accompanied the body (...)

16A large part of the drama of Emma is the failure of such characters as Mrs Elton to install an “impartial spectator” or a “man within the breast” which will cause them to be ashamed when their behaviour breaches the rules of polite conduct, but the fact that such characters are not reformed exposes a broad problem with Smith’s general argument: if not all people are able empathise with the situation of others who are not like themselves, and not all people naturally flinch from inflicting pain on others, even when they know what suffering their actions cause, then the progress of reasonable and polite society will be at best uncertain. Furthermore, the idea of reforming what Smith called “the great mob of mankind” by giving them the benefit of sociable relations with “the wise and the virtuous”, was over-optimistic at best since this group, Smith himself acknowledged, was “a select, though [...] but a small party” (I.III.29). Furthermore, the idea that the “great mob” would have the luxury of time to reflect on their good example was fundamentally improbable. In the years when the Theory of Moral Sentiments was running through its eleven editions, the working population of England expanded enormously, became more and more impoverished, masterless and subject to draconian legal penalties (Ignatieff 67-90; Morrison xx). Indeed when one considers the ghoulish glee with which the populace of London flocked to public executions and indulged there in dissolute and riotous behaviour, one can appreciate that Smith’s theory of moral sentiments and Austen’s emulation of it were matters germane only to a small and affluent segment of the total population. Their concerns were part of an emergent code of conduct developed by the rising middle class to encourage personal self-discipline at a time of increased geographical and social mobility. Free-markets and economic individualism depend so very largely on ‘self-control’, i.e. willing subjection to abstract codes of conduct. Whilst the influence of this mentality would expand over the succeeding centuries, notably through compulsory secondary education, during Austen’s time self-discipline was distant from those without means to afford it. Country people driven out of their homes by the enclosures of their common land, handloom weavers and other rural artisanal producers dislocated by the early stages of the industrial revolution, and soldiers and sailors suddenly decommissioned and cast on the rubbish heap of history when hostilities with France were suspended, produced numerous groups of vagrants, like the gypsies which appear to threaten Harriet Smith in Emma. Fear of this ‘unruly poor’ prompted the British state subdue the multitude with spectacular violence. The Peterloo massacre was only the most notorious example of armed force being deployed by Britain’s landed oligarchy against those who demanded food, work, and the rights of man (Thompson; Morrison 20; Bender 252).4

Bentham’s Panopticon and the Forcible Induction of Moral Sentiments

  • 5 One of the most valuable essays on the relationship between the rise of free-indirect discourse, Ad (...)

17The disciplinary problem posed by those who could or would not be persuaded by politeness, reason or self-interest to install their own “impartial spectator” was enormous: attempting to control the rapidly increasing and impoverished population, many forms of petty theft were added to the “Bloody Code” such that by 1770 over 200 crimes were liable for the death penalty (Linebaugh). Until 1775 death-sentences had frequently been commuted to penal servitude in the American colonies, but after the outbreak of war with England this avenue was closed and large numbers of criminals began to accumulate in prison hulks, or die from the insanitary conditions (Ignatieff 44-79). Attempts to create penal settlements in Australia and other continents were hampered by distance and lack of infrastructure. The reform of British prisons offered another possibility, and in this context Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: or, The Inspection House (1791) attracted government attention as a mechanical method of installing Smith’s “impartial spectator” in members of the ‘criminal class’ by building prisons with radial cells, all of which could be observed from a central platform. Bentham promoted the Panopticon as a an ideal design for ”any place where people need to be kept under surveillance“, anywhere that there was a need for ”punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, caring the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry, or training the rising race in the path of education“, hence for factories, hospitals, schools and poor houses (Bentham Panopticon, 2).5 The extent of potential applications for the Panopticon indicates the extent of the unruliness which early free-market capitalism experienced as threatening to its success, and its concern with the unruly poor, the workless, indeed any individuals or groups who might fail to internalise rational, productive discipline. In this respect Bentham, Polanyi and Foucault concur in their appreciation of how radically market capitalism was creating a liberated individual who was forced to accept the market as its policeman. For those who resisted, Bentham’s panoptic cure sought to develop a paranoid condition in which the “persons to be inspected” would imagine themselves to be “under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them [...] during every instant of time” (2-3), even if they knew this might not be the case. To induce this “impartial spectator” within the breasts of hardened criminals Bentham proposed that the cells be built so that lateral vision between one cell and its neighbours would be impossible, and that light coming through windows, or artificial light at night, would make the occupant of each cell constantly visible from the central observation post. Furthermore, blinds on the windows of the observation post would make it impossible for the observed to know when in fact they are being observed, or not. The observers should “see without being seen” (23) so that those seen would internalise the sense of being observed without any ability to know the person of the observer. Furthermore, the watchers should be similarly subjected to centralised surveillance: ”under Keepers or Inspectors will be under the same irresistible control with respect to the Head Keeper or Inspector, as the Prisoners or other persons to be governed, are with respect to them“ (24). The panopticon would thus mechanically install an impartial spectator in insubordinate minds. Foucault’s famous discussion of surveillance and punishment, and Althusser’s deciphering the intimate relationship of religious and educational institutions (ideological state apparatuses) and the military, police and judicial systems (repressive state apparatuses), descend from this moment: modern citizens are induced to think of themselves as free and autonomous, but internalize and conform to a logic of the state which makes this freedom possible.

The Sense of the Market, from Custom to Capital

  • 6 A fine example of “just measures of pain” is provided by Bentham’s idea of a flogging machine furni (...)

18Bentham’s thinking about penalties and penal reform may be considered an extreme response to the irrationality which rational society constructs as its antithesis, and as such his ideas never cease to provoke critical responses.6 Nevertheless, as Michel Foucault demonstrated in Surveiller et punir, they informed the construction of prisons and prisoners, and indeed the lives of ‘ordinary citizens’, for the next two centuries. Liberals shudder to think our society depends on massive and systematic repression, preferring to foreground the pleasures enjoyed by free-thinking, economically and socially mobile individuals, and the relative absence of disciplinary constraint experienced in everyday life, but we also witness that modern freedom is dependent on the internalisation of rules and regulations which are necessary to market society, including the need for those without money somehow to pay rent and purchase food whilst the owners of capital accumulate monstrous fortunes at their expense, as recently displayed by Thomas Piketty in Capitalism and Ideology. As Polanyi, Dumont and Thompson observed more than sixty years ago, with the great transformation to market capitalism society cedes authority for most policework and moral values to the economic sphere, encouraging every individual to live by calculating the balance of rewards and costs, its new names for pleasure and pain. Mercantilists had promoted the market-place as the agency of reason through the idealised scenario of merchants agreeing a price which expresses their mutual interest, suggesting that the regularity of commerce would pervade all of civil society and discourage the wars which had blighted seventeenth-century Europe (Hirschman). Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the last and greatest text to promote this world view, but in itself it occludes the reality so evident to Daniel Defoe, a merchant before he was a journalist, that the market is a theatre of deceit, fear and desire, a scenario controlled by the coercive power of whoever has the most money.

19These reflections may seem distant from Jane Austen’s Emma yet it has long been clear that Austen is interested in manners, marriage, morals and money and that most of her novels are courtship romances inspired by the bourgeois marriage market that became a major aspect of British society during the later eighteenth century. Nearly all the action in the first volume of Emma is determined by Emma’s match-making for her protégé Harriet Smith, firstly her persuading Harriet to decline Robert Martin’s marriage proposal, and then her attempts to set up Mr. Elton as her suitor, both of which go terribly wrong since Mr Elton’s intentions are all towards Emma. The action in the second volume is taken up with Emma’s focus on ‘placing’ Harriet in the marriage market, her ironic inability to comprehend that she herself is the object of Mr Elton’s desire, and her flirtation with Frank Churchill under the mistaken belief he is setting his cap at her, whilst he is in fact secretly betrothed to Jane Fairfax. The third volume continues the winding and unwinding of these threads in the courtship between Emma and Mr Knightley.

20As the fundamental architecture and plot of Emma is provided by the marriage market, so nearly every event and sentence exposes the permeation of daily life by market mentality. In Chapter 3, we have the free-indirect representation of Emma’s thoughts about Harriet, whom she has just met: Emma tells herself that Harriet is “so artlessly impressed by the appearance of everything [at Hartfield] in so superior a style to what she had been used to [...] she must have good sense, and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given [...]. Those soft blue eyes, and all those natural graces, should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury” (I.3, 22). The phrases flow so easily one might fail to observe their ironies: Emma is gratified that Harriet appreciates her superior style, and concludes that Harriet therefore deserves social advancement above the rank to which she is accustomed. This thought expresses in a nutshell the central obsessions and beliefs of bourgeois society: obsession with style above any other considerations, petty social hierarchisation, snobbish presumptions of self-importance, class consciousness, contempt for the lower orders, commodity fetishism. The somewhat shocking realisation is that Jane Austen is deliberately and devastatingly representing a society whose values are perilously indistinct from what most of us later readers would consider to be commodity fetishism, which is just what Thomas Piketty has observed when describing how Austen represents a society that has replaced valuation by social rank with valuation by the universal monetary equivalent (171).

21Whilst Piketty’s observation is cogent, it is important to notice that Emma is also consciously transitional, and Austen also proposes that Knightley offers a way forward that is only appropriately concerned with wealth, and primarily focused on making a good society. Knightley’s exemplary conduct shows that whilst aristocratic rank matters less and less (and less in Emma than in Pride and Prejudice), rank also remains a powerful residual ideology for the English bourgeoisie, and can indeed morph from discrimination by blood, dynasty, history (as exemplified by Lady Catherine de Bourgh) into discrimination according to market position (spending power, consumerism etc.) whilst apparently maintaining a place to stand outside the simple reductionism of market capitalism. As became apparent in Mansfield Park, within the long migration of values from feudalism to capitalist modernity in Britain, monarchy and (landed) aristocracy were morphing during Austen’s lifetime to their new role as ideological (or mythological) explanations and guarantors for the British global imperial system, cloaking Smithian market economics with the halo of an eternal and benevolent dispensation. Within this larger history and purpose, the largest questions posed by Emma are 1) ‘Who will marry Mr. Knightley?’ and 2) – the truly foundational question – ‘What is the future for Donwell Abbey?’ In other words, how will the ruling class survive? Whilst the universal monetary equivalent is everywhere implicit but only sometimes flagrant in Austen, (whilst being nearly always flagrant in Balzac), the mystique of land and the idea of gentility have a few centuries left to run.

  • 7 Frank’s ascent so closely resembles that of Austen’s own brother, Edward, who through adoption beca (...)

22Embroidering this theme, we note that Mr Weston is approved of because he has moved from trade to gentility by ceasing to earn his living and is now spending his largesse with genteel decorum. Mr Weston’s son, Frank Churchill, is therefore of bourgeois origin, and more recently than Emma Woodhouse, but, having been adopted as heir by the sister of his deceased mother who has married into the landed Churchill family he is moving into the lower nobility.7 The logic of these social transitions is resoundingly respectful towards the ancient regime, but inherently transformational, as mobile as money. In Piketty’s terms, the new social dominant is “proprietarian”: from the veneration of rank and land towards the veneration of cashable property. In this newly mobile world Harriet Smith, a young lady of uncertain social origins, has to arbitrate her own commodity value, but at least because she is now living in an incipiently mobile capitalist society so she does have that right, just as Elizabeth Bennet had asserted very loudly in Pride and Prejudice, albeit still with a nod towards her father’s rank as a gentleman.

23A consequence of this fluent historical situation is nuanced financial considerations: Emma thinks Harriet is “worth more” than Mr Martin, whilst Mr Knightly confesses that at first he thought Harriet worthless,

the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations [...]. A parlour-boarder at a common school [...] not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information. She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired anything herself [...]. She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all. (I.8, 64)

24Mr Knightley thus provides a comprehensive example of how a human being can now be reduced to a set of economic indicators. Nonetheless, Knightley is impressed with how Harriet has “improved” under Emma’s tutelage, and complements Emma upon her achievement: “I cannot rate her beauty as you do [...]. but she is a pretty little creature, and I am inclined to think very well of her disposition. Her character depends upon those she is with; but in good hands she will turn out a valuable woman. [...]. you have improved her. You have cured her of her school-girl’s giggle; she really does you credit.” Thus, Emma’s labour-time having been productively invested, she has, as we would now say, ‘added value’ to Harriet and herself profited from her activity by establishing a “credit”, a monetary equivalent, in Mr. Knightley’s account book.

25This sequence of metaphors is so patent that it encourages me to ask if the increased critical attention paid to Austen since c. 1960 (when Sir Walter Scott’s star began to fall) is largely due to our own increasing sense of being subjected to the authority of market capitalism. Since nearly all current readers of Austen will have spent 15-25 years studying how to ‘improve themselves’, we can only by an exercise of historical imagination construct the shocking modernity of these sentences, drenched as they are with consumerist and educationalist assumptions. Harriet is not being admired for her domestic skills, physical strength or child-bearing abilities – qualities that might suit a farmer’s wife – nor for her potential to become a prime minister, president or CEO. Under Emma’s tutelage she is being turned into a bourgeois commodity, pretty and polite. But even though Knightley is certain Harriet is below the worth of Mr Martin, not above it as Emma contends, he remains ambiguous about her eventual investment value, as is appropriate in a world where identities and personal wealth do not depend on the seeming fixity of land and title and ancestry, but are now functions of the market. Knightley is sure, however, that the Reverend Elton will shop for something higher: “Elton is a very good sort of man, and a very respectable vicar of Highbury, but not at all likely to make an imprudent match. He knows the value of a good income as well as any body. Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally” (I.8, 70).

26Knightly understands that economic interests are now dominant, and makes the standard capitalist equation of rationality with economic self-interest. He admires Robert Martin because he manages his farm well. Mr Martin will therefore pay to Mr Knightley, his landlord, an appropriate monetary return. Emma’s evaluation, on the other hand, is an expression of the ancient regime’s interest in status: she ranks Harriet well above Robert Martin because (Emma assumes wrongly) she is a genteel lady and the intimate friend of a real lady, Emma herself. Her conceit is brilliantly exposed, strangely translating the conceit displayed by Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice to a more up-to-date vernacular. “What!”, Emma exclaims, “think a farmer, (and with all his sense and all his merit Mr. Martin is nothing more,) a good match for my intimate friend! Not regret her leaving Highbury for the sake of marrying a man whom I could never admit as an acquaintance of my own! I [...] I must think your statement by no means fair [...] Mr. Martin may be the richest of the two, but he is undoubtedly her inferior as to rank in society. – The sphere in which she moves is much above his. – It would be a degradation.” To which Mr Knightley replies: “A degradation to illegitimacy and ignorance, to be married to a respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer!” (I.8, 65).

27These sentences mark the enormous change which has occurred in English society since the 1790s when Austen drafted her early fictions, and where Emma’s opinions would have had more cogency, even if ironised. By 1815, they are remarkably passé. Market capitalism has become dominant, as Austen is hinting here and would soon make even clearer in Sanditon. Emma is in effect conflicted, wishing to exploit the weakening of traditional ranks so she can indulge her personal whim of match-making, and yet relying on now-tattered notions of rank to underwrite her candidate.

  • 8 Broadwood became a global prestige brand when Haydn adopted their pianos in 1791. They were particu (...)

28As the marriage market provides the twists and turns of the narrative, so commodification provides the details. Although it will be 84 years before Thorsten Veblen will publish his Theory of the Leisure Class, his title adequately describes the fraction of society represented in Emma since its members are primarily defined by having status because wealthy without working. They spend their days planning balls and picnics and dinner parties, and can express their insouciance about consumerist expenditure in modes which seem remarkably modern: the foppish Frank Churchill muses, like a character from Oscar Wilde or Crazy Rich Asians, “I feel a strong persuasion, this morning, that I shall soon be abroad. I ought to travel. I am tired of doing nothing. I want a change” (III.6, 396); Mr Woodhouse debates the relative merits of Cromer and South End as seaside resorts (I.12, 113); and Mrs Elton boasts “But what is distance, Mr. Weston, to people of large fortune? – You would be amazed to hear how my brother, Mr. Suckling, sometimes flies about. You will hardly believe me – but twice in one week he and Mr. Bragge went to London and back again with four horses” (II.18, 331). They are also connoisseurs of brands, most notably Frank Churchill in his going to Broadwood’s to buy a piano for Jane Fairfax and specifying a “softness of the upper notes” (II.10, 260), but also Mr Elton in his insistence on being allowed to have Emma’s rather amateurish sketch of Harriet framed in London and Mrs Elton with her obsession about the “barouche landau”.8 Portending Henry James, already at this early moment of bourgeois sovereignty, we are shown how people make commodities of themselves. Despite his formal role as clergyman, Mr. Elton is portrayed throughout the novel as a void shaped by utterances, gestures, behaviours that are entirely derived from market society. Not unlike the charades around which the ninth chapter of the novel is constructed, he comprises a hackneyed repertoire of trite, self-evident meanings. The reader’s pleasure in reading Mr Elton is akin to the pleasure of reading Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues, a rehearsal in signifying insignificance. Austen herself warns us about commonplace books, “In this age of literature, such collections on a very grand scale are not uncommon” (I.9, 74). Through these charades and riddles and fetishistic deceits, Emma prepares Harriet for life as a mere object, advising her that

This is an alliance which, whoever – whatever your friends may be, must be agreeable to them, provided at least they have common sense [...]. If they are anxious to see you happily married, here is a man whose amiable character gives every assurance of it; – if they wish to have you settled in the same country and circle which they have chosen to place you in, here it will be accomplished; and if their only object is that you should, in the common phrase, be well married, here is the comfortable fortune, the respectable establishment, the rise in the world which must satisfy them. (I.9, 80)

29This is exactly the kind of life Austen refused for herself, and exactly the kind of life to which Emma accedes when she marries Mr. Knightley, a life laid out in advance, a life commodified. It is paradoxical therefore to notice that Emma only becomes aware of her fantastical overvaluation of Harriet when she realises (or rather imagines) that she might have to compete with Harriet in the marriage market for Mr Knightley’s hand (III.11, 446-48). Until this moment she has indulged her penchant for match-making because it allows her to imagine she is in control of the market, not controlled by it. Her painful moment of recognition (anagnorisis) is achieved by understanding her situation objectively: she realises what it would be like to be outranked by a Harriet Smith, a ‘nobody’ who has become Mrs. Knightley, and how vile it is to be perceived as an object of low value, and thus subjected. We note how the terms spin around: Emma-as-subject abruptly appreciates herself as Emma-as-object, rather akin to what happens in free-indirect discourse which objectivises subjectivity.

30If Emma had had more sense she would have appreciated her own subjection much earlier. She had heard – or imaginatively ventriloquized – Mr. Elton’s horribly expressed view of the value of Miss Harriet Smith relative to Miss Emma Woodhouse:

She need not trouble herself to pity him. He only wanted to aggrandise and enrich himself; and if Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield, the heiress of thirty thousand pounds, were not quite so easily obtained as he had fancied, he would soon try for Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten. (I.16, 146-47)

31But had she really paid attention to the conversion of a person into a category or social type – the lovely young Harriet into a “Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten”, or at any rate, someone with one third or two thirds of Emma’s value? As in Mrs. Elton’s later grossly inapt equation of governessing to the slave trade (II.17, 325) – especially inapt from the daughter of a Bristol merchant – Austen’s forensic use of language exposes the cavernous interior of capitalism’s reduction of all people to market forces. Mr. Elton opines

Miss Smith is a very good sort of girl; and I should be happy to see her respectably settled. I wish her extremely well: and, no doubt, there are men who might not object to – Everybody has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith! (I.15, 142)

32It is fortunate that two hundred years later many readers can still imagine a world where a lifelong commitment to love and honour someone would not be absolutely conditioned by a calculable “equality” (of rank, professional status, race, income). Nonetheless, in property owning circles there is now general acceptance of Mr. Elton’s mentality. Indeed, a major strand of comedy in the novel, and in recent rewrites, wraps itself around Emma thinking about herself as a marketable commodity:

Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior in talent, and all the elegancies of mind. The very want of such equality might prevent his perception of it; but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family – and that the Eltons were nobody. The landed property of Hartfield certainly was inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all the rest of Highbury belonged; but their fortune, from other sources, was such as to make them scarcely secondary to Donwell Abbey itself, in every other kind of consequence; and the Woodhouses had long held a high place in the consideration of the neighbourhood which Mr. Elton had first entered not two years ago, to make his way as he could, without any alliances but in trade, or anything to recommend him to notice but his situation and his civility. (I.16, 147)

  • 9 Particularly with “Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior (...)

33We perceive here that Emma’s thoughts on the matter (or about herself) are scarcely wiser than Mr Elton’s, but the reader is distracted from this realisation by fluttering before our eyes the distraction of landed rank. Emma’s qualities, at least, are not strictly monetary; they are over-coded by elegancies of mind, presumed social refinements which can to an extent be taught but which are learned primarily by good upbringing, which necessarily implies several generations of landed gentility, the possession of money over time.9 Emma here vaunts herself as paid-up member of the ancient regime (i.e. a snob), but even in this self-estimation she could be damning herself in the eyes of real landed wealth: a few generations would not qualify her as eligible for marriage to any of the great families of the kingdom. For them she would appear so little better than Mr Elton. They would require origins at least Elizabethan, preferably Tudor. Norman would be the nec plus ultra.

34The task of exposing the screaming awfulness of this way of thinking in Emma is given to Mrs. Elton in a voice so loud it tends to drown out the realisation that Emma is much closer to her than she recognises. That Mrs Elton is nouveau riche is perfectly captured when she tries to insert her much vaunted brother-in-law into the historic landed class by saying “Mr. Suckling, who has been eleven years a resident at Maple Grove, and whose father had it before him – I believe, at least – I am almost sure that old Mr. Suckling had completed the purchase before his death” (II.18, 336). Her upstart nature is thus effectively exposed by her utter ignorance of the codes and her insensitivity to those to whom she speaks: by her own words she appears to condemn herself as just another one of the “upstarts” of whom she has “quite a horror”. However, whilst it is often lost in the abreaction any polite reader will have to such vainglorious stupidity we should observe that Mrs Elton is only continuing a line of conversation already opened by the genteel Mr Woodhouse when he reflected on how his own first wife had been snubbed by her brother’s wife, Frank Churchill’s step-mother, herself a mere “upstart”:

Mr. Churchill has pride; but his pride is nothing to his wife’s: his is a quiet, indolent, gentlemanlike sort of pride that would harm nobody, and only make himself a little helpless and tiresome; but her pride is arrogance and insolence! And what inclines one less to bear, she has no fair pretence of family or blood. She was nobody when he married her, barely the daughter of a gentleman; but ever since her being turned into a Churchill she has out-Churchill’d them all in high and mighty claims: but in herself, I assure you, she is an upstart. (III.18, 335)

35We thus observe that Mrs Elton is flailing helplessly as she tries to position herself inside an ancient regime ideology that leaves her no place to stand. Her painfulness is the painfulness of all who are neither born into this tiny ruling class nor strong enough to emancipate themselves from the grip of its ideology. Austen’s comic energy surges like a volcano from this painful recognition. Similarly, Mrs Elton is guilty of a gross solecism when she expatiates on the resemblances of her brother-in-law’s estate Maple Grove and the Woodhouse estate at Hartfield:

So extremely like Maple Grove! And it is not merely the house – the grounds, I assure you, as far as I could observe, are strikingly like. The laurels at Maple Grove are in the same profusion as here, and stand very much in the same way – just across the lawn; and I had a glimpse of a fine large tree, with a bench round it, which put me so exactly in mind! My brother and sister will be enchanted with this place. People who have extensive grounds themselves are always pleased with anything in the same style. (II.14.294)

36The reader must flinch with embarrassment, aware that the parvenue insults Emma by elevating herself to the same social level. However, behind this evident solecism lies the more frightening possibility that the apparently unique appurtenances of Hartfield are but serial products from a consumer style book. Mrs Elton thus exposes the fundamental capitalist paradox of people purchasing objects of distinction to show they are part of a class: the object of distinction thus betrays their impersonal serialisation (Baudrillard; Lynch 210).

37Mrs Elton’s outrageous presumption of calling Mr Knightley just “Knightley”, and Emma Woodhouse just “Emma Woodhouse” (not “Miss Emma Woodhouse”), along with manifold other solecisms, seems to place her beyond the pale of polite society. But if we reflect on the nature of her offence, could the real crime be that her transgressions expose the codes of ranking by which this social class lives? Her failure to install and obey the impartial spectator results in her betraying its codes, which is the worst of crimes against a security state. She does not know her place, placing herself higher than she has a right to be, the inverse image of Harriet Smith who does know her place but knows well enough to resist Emma’s bid to promote her higher.

38This play around rank is crucial because not simple: as I have mentioned above, birth is no longer solely determinate but melded with the size of cash fortunes, future prospects, education, natural ability. Jane Fairfax, with no fortune but natural elegance and musical flair will make a wife good enough for a man of fortune like Frank Churchill who will be too rich to care about landed alliances. Money gushes through the kingdom, rendering the status of blood much less relevant than market force, and markets themselves encourage an almost infinite variety of commodity forms and hierarchies: Mrs Elton has some dim perceptions of how complex it all is, but is not smart enough to play a modest part. She seeks an immediate, crude profit in every social exchange, so her utterances shred and expose the delicate hierarchical web of modern market capitalism like the hooker Vivian Ward when she goes shopping in Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive (as played by Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman).

The Epiphany of Donwell

39The second volume of the novel having provided a very comic and perhaps at times terrifying vision of the instabilities introduced during the transition to a capitalist market society, the third volume has the task of resolving the romance and answering the question of who will become the chatelaine of Donwell Abbey. Of course this is obvious throughout, even though put in question. The reader will have noticed that Mr Knightley commands the narration as the voice of reason, the man who perceives unerringly. He also has transformed the ethos of the ruling class: unlike the arrogant Darcy and de Bourghs in Pride and Prejudice, and the spendthrift upstarts in Mansfield Park, this is a man who has horses put into his carriage to take the venerable Mrs. Bates to a party but refuses for himself such a wasteful display of wealth (II.8, 230). This is the man who understands the true worth of Robert Martin, and the true worth of Harriet Smith, and the real function of Donwell Abbey as the enduring index of a landed ruling class that is transforming itself to remain in power:

[Emma] felt all the honest pride and complacency which her alliance with the present and future proprietor could fairly warrant, as she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered– its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight–and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up.– It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was–and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding. [...]. It was a sweet view–sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive. (III.6, 388-91)

40Donwell is the point de capiton of the Austen world, then and now. Donwell prevents the triumph of the nouveau riche Mrs Elton, the chaos that would result from the mendacious charades of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Donwell exemplifies to perfection Roland Barthes’ understanding of modern myth as a second order of ideology in which the political purpose has been cloaked in the mask of nature (Barthes): it is what it is, purely. Whilst – or indeed because – its name admits to the Henrican expropriations of monastic land, its status as history has become eternally a historic, an unquestionable thereness, like Knightley’s true gentility. The epiphany of Donwell betrays the need of market capitalism for a mythology of truth, an honest deal, a “gold standard”, to occlude its violent, unstable, destabilizing reality. It will in particular vindicate two hundred years of British imperial exploitation across the entire world.

Haut de page


Primary sources

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1814. Ed. Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon; or, the Inspection-House: containing the idea of a new principle of construction applicable to [...] penitentiary-houses, prisons [...] and schools; with a plan of management, etc. London: T. Payne, 1791

Bentham, Jeremy. Théorie des peines et des récompenses (Paris, 1811), translated by Richard Smith as The Rationale of Punishment. London: Robert Heward, 1830.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on a Revolution in France. London: James Dodsley, 1790.

Burney, Frances. Camilla. London, 1796.

Knox, Vicessimus (ed). Elegant epistles: or, A copious collection of familiar and amusing letters, etc. London: Charles Dilly, 1790

Knox, Vicessimus (ed). Elegant Extracts, or useful and entertaining pieces of poetry selected for the improvement of youth, etc. London: Charles Dilly, c. 1784.

Kwan, Kevin. Crazy Rich Asians. New York: Random House, 2013.

Ng, Celeste. Little Fires Everywhere. New York: Little, Brown, 2017.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1790. Ed. D.D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Secondary sources

Althusser, Louis. 1971. Trans. Ben Brewster. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses". Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays. London: New Left Books, 1977. 121-76.

Banfield, Ann. Unspeakable Sentences; Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction. Boston and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Barthes, Roland. “Le mythe aujourd’hui” in Mythologies. Paris: Seuil, 1957.

Baudrillard, Jean. Le Système des objets. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.

Bender, John. Imagining the Penitentiary: fiction and the architecture of mind in eighteenth century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Brewer, John, Neil McKendrick, and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society; the Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982.

Clark, Robert (ed.). Jane Austen’s Geographies. New York and London: Routledge, 2018.

Dumont, Louis. From Mandeville to Marx: The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. 1975. Surveiller et Punir. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Hirschman, Albert O. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Knox-Shaw, Peter. Jane Austen and the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.

Lodge, David. Consciousness and the Novel: Connected Essays. London: Secker & Warburg, 2002.

Linebaugh, Peter. The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Allen Lane, 1991.

Lynch, Deirdre. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Michie, Elsie B. “Austen’s Powers: Engaging with Adam Smith in Debates about Wealth and Virtue.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 1 (2000): 5-27.

Moler, Kenneth. “The Bennet Girls and Adam Smith on Vanity and Pride”, Philological Quarterly 46 (1967): 567-9.

Morrison, Robert. The Regency Revolution: Jane Austen, Napoleon, Lord Byron and the Making of the Modern World. London: Atlantic, 2019.

Pascal, Roy. The Dual Voice; Free-indirect Speech and its functioning in the nineteenth century Novel. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1977.

Piketty, Thomas. Capital and Ideology. Trans. Arnold Goldhammer. Boston: Harvard UP, 2019.

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. 1944. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

Thompson, E.P. Customs in Common. London: Merlin Press, 1991.

Veblen, Thorsten, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. New York: Macmillan, 1899.

Wahrman, Dror. Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain c. 1780-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Haut de page


1 In his recent and widely successful Capital and Ideology Thomas Piketty acknowledges his debt to Polanyi. Piketty recasts Polanyi’s great transformation as the transition from “ternary” or “trifunctional” societies structured by nobility (warrior class), clergy (ideological class) and the peasantry, to modern “ownership” societies where the primary agent is the economically, socially and geographically mobile proprietarian individual. (Piketty 469-71.)

2 Several textual instances reveal how the discourse is not yet stable. See for example the free-indirect narration of Frank Churchill’s return to Highbury: “Lively as he was, it seemed a liveliness that did not satisfy himself; but what decided her belief on the subject, was his staying only a quarter of an hour, and hurrying away to make other calls in Highbury. “He had seen a group of old acquaintance in the street as he passed – he had not stopped, he would not stop for more than a word … he must hurry off.” She had no doubt as to his being less in love – but neither his agitated spirits, nor his hurrying away, seemed like a perfect cure …. (Austen, Vol III, CH. 1, 342). The errant quotation marks are in the original. Other instances can be found at II, 7, 226, and II, 8, 229.

3 This logic is pervasive in subsequent culture. To cite a recent example, it is finely and ironically represented in Elena Richardson’s attitude to Mia Warren in Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017).

4 Robert Morrison records that on the last day of 1811 a crowd of 10,000 people accompanied the body of a presumed murderer to a crossroads on the Ratcliffe Highway where a stake was driven through the corpse’s heart and the body forced down into a narrow hole (20). In March 1789 Catherine Murphy, was burned at the stake for counterfeiting. Spectacular pain continued to be used as a disciplinary force in the 1860s: the last woman hanged in public was Frances Kidder, in 1868; the last man was Michael Barrett, a Feinian insurrectionist, in 1867. Thereafter, on hanging days, rather than crowding the streets outside Newgate, the populace deprived of their public spectacles migrated to Madame Tussaud’s waxworks on Baker Street where they could see life-sized tableaux. (Bender 252).

5 One of the most valuable essays on the relationship between the rise of free-indirect discourse, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon proposal is found in John Bender’s Imagining the Penitentiary. Bender comments on the similarity between the ideas of Smith, Bentham and the rise the realist novel, arguing that just as the penitentiary is designed to install an impartial spectator in those who refuse regulation, so the realist novel teaches wayward individuals their need of moral correction by the authorial point of view. Within both the penitentiary and the realist novel, characters are transparently observed by the master, and ranked according to their success or failure in accepting rational codes of behaviour. Both the penitentiary and the realist novel thus disseminate their prejudicial conception of the world as inherently transparent and ideally rule-governed. A very similar observation was made by Samuel Johnson in 1750 when he argued that the new novel’s techniques of verisimilitude can be used to persuade its readers against irregular desires. Whilst Bender’s exposition remains extremely valuable and foundational for this essay, when he says that the realist novel and the penitentiary “place the individual in an entirely revised footing vis-à-vis authority” and “redefine the way of being in the world.” (213) it is important to recognise that both phenomena are driven by the coming to dominance of market capitalism which constructs the individual as a free agent within a world of invisible regulation. The lower orders, in particular, were leaving the constraints of the village and native parish, migrating into small towns or big cities, and sometimes travelling the world for military or commercial organisations. They had to carry with them an ideology of obedience to market regulation.

6 A fine example of “just measures of pain” is provided by Bentham’s idea of a flogging machine furnished with “elastic rods of cane or whalebone” which could be controlled by an officer who would moderate the “force and rapidity with which they should be applied” according to a pre-established judicial scale which would compute the kind of crime against the quantum of pain appropriate to the kind of criminal (hard-skinned worker, soft skinned gentleman, woman, and so on) such that there should be no variations in the effectivity of pain caused in each particular case. Such machines would allow economies of scale, the time of the “public officer” supervising the punishment could be spread across a bank of such machines, thus creating an economic benefit and enabling the display of these devices to potential criminals for whom “the terror of the scene might be heightened”. It is pertinent to this present essay that Bentham used modern capitalist market metaphors, justifying his rigorous calculus of penalties as an “economy of punishment”: “The pain produced by punishments is as it were a capital hazarded in expectation of profit. Punishment is economic when the desired effect is produced by the employment of the least possible suffering.” These thoughts were probably composed in 1775, published in the Théorie des Peines et des Récompenses (Paris, 1811) and translated by Richard Smith as The Rationale of Punishment (82, 27).

7 Frank’s ascent so closely resembles that of Austen’s own brother, Edward, who through adoption became Edward Knight of Goodnestone and Chawton, that this character must surely intend a witty reference to those supposed to know.

8 Broadwood became a global prestige brand when Haydn adopted their pianos in 1791. They were particularly famed for customisation of instruments. Taking a leaf out of Wedgwood’s technique of product placement, Thomas Broadwood presented a piano to Beethoven in 1818 establishing the commercial intimacy between manufacturer and virtuoso that continues to this day. On Wedgwood’s marketing techniques, see Brewer et al. On the expense of travel and its increasing consumption, see Clark 1-27.

9 Particularly with “Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior in talent, and all the elegancies of mind.” (I, 16, 147). Elegance is a key discriminator throughout the novel, pointed up in the reference (I, 4, 28) to Vicessimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts, the very successful anthology of exemplary prose (which even Robert Martin has read) aimed at the “improvement” of young persons. Knox was an acquaintance of the Rev. George Austen.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Robert Clark, « Jane Austen’s Emma, Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’, market capitalism and free-indirect discourse. »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 77 | 2020, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2020, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Robert Clark

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search