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Q&A: 'Jane Austen's Guide to Thrift'

English professors cull financial tips from the romantic novelist's sensibilities

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Looking for cutting-edge investor tips, market analysis and fund strategies?

Prithee, move on -- the pennywise advice contained herein comes from a late-18th century novelist who had little patience for financial fiddle faddle.

Kathleen Anderson and Susan Jones, authors, 'Jane Austen's Guide to Thrift'
Jane Austen's Guide
Jane Austen's Guide

Jane Austen's witty portraits of late 18th century society have enthralled readers for generations, but Palm Beach Atlantic University English professors Kathleen Anderson (left) and Susan Jones saw something different: advice on thrift.

Meet Jane Austen, money adviser.

English professors Kathleen Anderson and Susan Jones of Florida's Palm Beach Atlantic University assembled "Jane Austen's Guide to Thrift" out of a mutual love for the British comedic novelist and a shared frugality from upbringings spent in frugal northern states.

Snippets of wisdom culled from Austen's six novels ("Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," "Mansfield Park," "Emma,"  "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion") form the framework for this unusual mash-up of a robust book club meeting and a personal finance webinar.

Would Jane Austen have carried a credit card today? Read on, gentle reader.

Q: You're English professors, not financial gurus. What inspired you to tap Jane Austen for money tips?

Susan Jones: As English professors, we've been interested in thrift for a long time (laughs). Of course, we love Jane Austen. And it's easy to do a kind of economic reading of her novels because it's always the well-balanced characters who live within their means who are clearly the ones that Austen wants us to admire. When you have characters who are profligate and destroy things, they're the less-desirable characters in her novels.

Q: Life among the landed gentry 200 years ago was a far cry from our world.

Jones: Yes, many people didn't work as we know it; they were living on different kinds of investments based on the government and sometimes schemes. The only professions for men in her class would have been the clergy or the military. Women could sew or work as a governess, so they were very dependent on finding a rich husband; they were in a particularly precarious situation in terms of learning how to deal with both wealth and potential poverty.

Q: Money management figured prominently in your social standing and character in Austen's day, right?

Kathleen Anderson: Very true; there was a strong sense of the principle of financial integrity and the idea that financial virtue is as important as every other form of virtue. A person didn't simply spend what she didn't have. As a result, you were really encouraged to turn inward to see what really does matter in your life. By spending carefully on what you really need, you have more money to be generous to other people and the causes you care about as well.

Jane Austen

Q: Some characters could take thrift too far, however.

Jones: Yes. Aunt Norris in "Mansfield Park," for example,  is really thrifty but she's also nasty; she's always extracting stuff from people through nefarious means. The characters around her recognize that. She's very thrifty but nobody likes it.

Anderson: She's the ultimate moocher and that's frowned upon. Jane Austen encourages us be self-disciplined spenders who are also generous in spirit, and Aunt Norris is definitely not that. She's a user.

Q: Austen's great gift was that she wove this wisdom into comedic novels.

Jones: Yes, but she also shows us a much more venal type of character. There is a male character in "Sense and Sensibility" and it's very clear that he is so unscrupulous that he might even do violence to people in order to get the money to support his lifestyle. Hidden under those layers of comedy are also some definite warnings about the types of people who can bring you to ruin if you allow yourself to be sucked into their machinations.

Anderson: Or characters who are outright dishonorable like John Dashwood in "Sense and Sensibility," who makes a deathbed promise to his father that he will provide financially for his stepmother and stepsisters because, according to the laws of primogeniture, he inherited the whole estate. But his father was very concerned about that because he had a family from his second marriage and John was his son from the first marriage. John was not legally obligated, but he was morally obligated by that deathbed promise to provide for them and he simply doesn't. By contrast, then we have Miss Bates in "Emma," who is one of the poorest characters in all the novels and she's also one of the most generous.

As English professors, we've been interested in thrift for a long time ... And it's easy to do a kind of economic reading of her novels because it's always the well-balanced characters who live within their means who are clearly the ones that Austen wants us to admire.

-- Susan Jones 

Q: "Downton Abbey" is all the rage today. Is there a reason we long for those simpler days?

Jones: I think a disciplined pattern of living is one of the things we're nostalgic for. When I went back to university to earn my graduate degree, they were practically handing out credit cards to the undergraduates, who had no idea how to use credit and would then run up large amounts of credit card debt without thinking about the interest rates escalating as they did.

Anderson: We haven't had excellent role models in the business world or necessarily in our government, with the bank scandals and so forth, so I think there's a lot of cultural disgust that drives that nostalgia for all of the values and elegance and beauty and grace that people associate with living a life of boundaries. Financial self-discipline is an outgrowth of self-discipline in all areas of a person's life. Perhaps principle is becoming fashionable again.

Q: The widespread availability of credit largely spelled an end to the landed gentry. Would Jane have approved?

Jones: I think she certainly would have embraced opportunities for women, which were simply not available in her time. In more than one of her novels, you have the sense that women who were forced to go as governesses might as well have been slaves. Obviously, there were two aspects of the world she lived in that she felt were at the very least uncomfortable if not unconscionable: the idea of slavery and the boundaries that were placed on women. On the other hand, she still espoused those values that women should not make themselves known to the world; she remained anonymous in her publications.

Anderson: She was such a writer of parody and it's so subtle that it's hard to know whether she embraced the class system as it stood -- making Elizabeth Bennet marry the richest and most upper-class man available, Mr. Darcy (in "Pride and Prejudice") -- or whether she reflects on the lack of opportunity for many people and the consequences of that lack of opportunity. Scholars disagree over whether she reinforces the class values and status quo of her time or whether she's a feminist, using wit and satire to make her point.

Q: Would she have approved of credit cards?

Anderson: I'd go so far as to say she would be shocked by how far people take credit and how cavalier and irresponsible people can be with their spending and feeling entitled to go crazy. I have trouble picturing her carrying around a credit card. You spend what you have and you live a life of integrity within that. No one is entitled to spend because he or she wants to do so.

Q: The landed gentry had a particularly interesting form of credit available to them. Tell us about the "obit bond."

Jones: One of the big horrors of the world she lived in was that young men who expected inheritance would post "obit bonds"; they borrowed money against somebody dying and leaving them money, at fairly substantial rates of interest. That's a big joke in Byron's poetry. They knew what credit was and how it could ruin you, but to be so crass as to get credit against the death of your father or your uncle? It almost makes credit cards sound reasonable!

Q: In her own life, Jane Austen never married, much less for money, and experienced lean times.

They knew what credit was and how it could ruin you, but to be so crass as to get credit against the death of your father or your uncle? It almost makes credit cards sound reasonable!

-- Kathleen Anderson 

Jones: Well, she produced six brilliant novels in addition to juvenilia that are so clever and fun that it's hard to imagine writing such things as a teenager. She was relatively young when she wrote the major novels and relatively young when she died at 41. Being single freed her in a certain way to produce great literature that we're still talking about 200 years later.

Q: She was somewhat trapped by her family responsibilities, right?

Jones: As single women, she and her sister Cassandra were expected to help their (six) brothers with child care and travel to and from their brothers' homes and have children visiting them. Women who remained single were somewhat at the beck and call of other family members in caretaker roles, so if one didn't have a particular love of small children, one would be out of luck in that society. For a woman, to take a paid position would have been considered stepping down in the family status, so she and her sister had to scrape and live respectively within their means and not lower the family status by going off as a governess or companion to someone. So there was a delicate line there. There is some empathy for Charlotte Lucas in "Pride and Prejudice" who has to marry an unpleasant character.

Q: If readers were to choose just one Austen novel as a financial compass, which should it be?

Anderson: I would say "Persuasion" because Anne Elliot, who at 27 was Austen's most mature heroine, her whole family's problem is that her father and older sister spend too much money. After her mother's death, there's no one to rein in her father and he is vain and irresponsible and overspends their income, resulting in them having to leave their estate, rent it out and go and live sort of genteel lives on a budget in Bath. Anne is kind of the victim of her family's spendthrift ways. She wants to do her duty; she believes the creditors should all be paid and the family should cut every luxury necessary to make that happen. So she always puts personal integrity and pride above appearances. That's really an important lesson for all of us: we don't need the new dress, the new suit, the trip to Tahiti to compete with the neighbors or whatever shallow motivations might sometimes spur us to buy something we can't afford. That's Anne Elliot.

See related: TV's 'Downton Abbey' mirrors today's financial turmoil

Published: March 25, 2013



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