Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 235-244
Persuasion and Persuadability:
When Vanity is a Virtue
INGER SIGRUN THOMSEN
The first chapter of Jane Austen’s last complete novel, Persuasion, features some character descriptions that, for Jane Austen, seem unusually stark. Who can forget the initial, almost heartless depiction of Sir Walter Elliot reading and rereading his own entry in the Baronetage “with an interest which never failed” until the book begins to open automatically to the page which features his own entry (3)?1 It is not insignificant that the novel opens with this description of Sir Walter’s self-absorption. In Persuasion, Austen develops a psychology of virtue which reveals the interrelation of self-regard, sympathy, and virtue remarkably similar to that discussed by eighteenth-century moral philosophers, especially Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, and Adam Smith. Of course in Sir Walter’s case, Austen calls it neither “self-absorption” nor “self-interest” nor even “self-regard,” and instead gives his leading characteristic a far more potent name. “Vanity,” the narrator informs us with unusual directness, “was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation” (4). “He considered the blessing of his beauty,” we learn, “as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion” (4). Within the first two pages, we witness the portrayal not only of a man who is deeply vain, but also of the vanity – the “nothingness” – of his life as a whole.
However well Sir Walter embodies the novel’s resources of vanity and pride, he does not exhaust them: there are very few characters who are not called either vain or proud in the course of the novel. In the rare moment when Elizabeth “struggle[s] between propriety and vanity,” the reader is not surprised when “vanity [gets] the better” of her (219). Mary too has “inherit[ed] a considerable share of the Elliot self-importance” and constantly “fanc[ies] herself neglected and ill-used” (37): as Louisa remarks, “She has a great deal too much of the Elliot pride” (88). Lady Russell is characterized as having a “more tempered and pardonable pride” (26), and although she is not an official member of the family, Elliot pride it remains nonetheless: “Their respectability was as dear to her as her own” (36). Mr. Elliot, too, admits to Anne that he is thought to be proud and does not seek to deny it (151). Even Wentworth finally realizes that he is to blame for at least six years of his separation from Anne: “I was proud, too proud to ask again,” he admits (247).
Rather than assuming the synonymity of such terms as “self-importance,” “pride,” and “vanity,” let us for a moment consider whether Austen is drawing an important distinction between them. To help us, I will enlist the aid of one of Austen’s most under-rated thinkers – Mary Bennet of Pride and Prejudice:
“Pride,” observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, “is a very common failing …. [H]uman nature is particularly prone to it, and … there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonimously [sic] …. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (20, my emphasis)
To a large extent, the Oxford English Dictionary supports Mary’s definitions, stressing that “vanity” is related to the “desire for admiration” while “pride” “gives rise to a feeling and attitude of superiority over and contempt for others.” We can see, however, from these definitions, that whether it is for the sake of others’ opinions or for the sake of one’s own opinion of others (including one’s opinion of their opinions), both pride and vanity are dependent upon an awareness of how one appears in relation to others. The mirror is therefore an appropriate symbol for both traits: the difference is that the proud person has internalized the mirror to a greater degree, while the vain person needs the constant, external mirroring of others. Thus it is that vanity has been called both more “slavish” and more “social” than pride.2 In actuality, pride and vanity may not be quite as distinct as Mary suggests. Is not Sir Walter the very model of what Louisa refers to as “the Elliot pride” as well as the epitome of vanity? Pride and vanity share a self-regarding, self-evaluative quality as well as a tendency to desire praise and to notice others’ opinions of oneself.
Austen appropriately chooses the image of mirrors to characterize Sir Walter’s vanity: not only is his “book of books” literally a verbal mirror of himself (and only of the part he most wishes to see),3 but we find that he has an unabashed love of mirrors in general. Admiral Croft is dismayed at the inordinate number of very large looking glasses in Kellynch – especially in Sir Walter’s dressing room: “Such a number of looking-glasses! oh Lord! there was no getting away from oneself …. [N]ow I am quite snug, with my little shaving glass in one corner, and another great thing that I never go near” (128).
Sir Walter’s desire for admiration leads him to assume that even outside his dressing room, in the wide expanses of Bath or even London, all eyes are constantly observing him and his minutest actions. Of course the joke is that, just like in his dressing room, all the eyes are his own. “[H]e was the constant object of his [own] warmest respect and devotion” (4), as the narrator informs us early on. He is terribly conscious of his public appearances – to the point that one suspects he must think they are recorded in an appendix to his book of books. Even the young Mr. Elliot’s offensive behavior is a greater blow to his vanity than to his sense of propriety or justice, “ ‘for they must have been seen together,’ he observed, ‘once at Tattersal’s, and twice in the lobby of the House of Commons” (8, my emphasis). His lawyer knows how to use Sir Walter’s vanity to achieve his own ends: “Consequence has its tax –,” he says fawningly, “I, John Shepherd, might conceal any family matter that I chose, for nobody would think it worth their while to observe me, but Sir Walter Elliot has eyes upon him which it may be very difficult to elude” (17). The reader, of course, knows better, largely through the help of Anne Elliot, who early on reveals “the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle” (42) – that is, a keen awareness of the absence of eyes on matters of Elliot importance.4
But are pride and vanity entirely foreign to the heart of Anne Elliot, that “almost perfect” heroine? A reader’s initial response would almost certainly be to assert Anne’s modesty and claim that her nature is the very opposite of her father’s. One of the (largely interchangeable) Miss Musgroves supports this opinon by remarking to Anne: “I have no scruple of observing to you, how nonsensical some persons are about their place [i.e. rank], because, all the world knows how easy and indifferent you are about it …” (46). Even Mr. Elliot, master of flattery though he is, has difficulty “kindl[ing] his modest cousin’s vanity” (214, my emphasis).
In some ways, however, Anne has even greater pride than Sir Walter and Elizabeth. Just as Anne is the repository of memories which others have forgotten,5 she is also the one who feels pride when Sir Walter and her sisters forget to. For example, when her father shows himself swayed and delighted by the attention and flattery of the society in Bath, “[Anne] must sigh that her father should feel no degradation in his change; should see nothing to regret in the duties and dignity of the resident landholder” (138). Anne feels not only the shame of which he is entirely incapable, but also more pride than Sir Walter himself over his former position of responsibility in the social order. She keenly senses both “degradation” and “dignity” where her father and sister are oblivious.6 In the scenes surrounding the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, Anne again exhibits more pride than her haughty father and sister. She wishes that they would refrain from toadying to their high-ranking relatives: Anne “had hoped better things from their high ideas of their own situation in life, and was reduced to form a wish she had never foreseen – a wish that they had more pride” (148).7 A little later she confides to Mr. Elliot: “I suppose I have more pride than any of you; …. I certainly am proud, too proud to enjoy a welcome which depends upon place” (151) – that is, which depends upon the limited choice of society which Bath affords. Anne’s self-evaluation here, I would suggest, is more accurate than it at first may appear – Anne not only has more pride, but if vanity is the concern for reputation and the desire for admiration, then Anne has a considerable degree of vanity as well.
Anne, who was “only Anne,” whose “word had no weight,” who knows her own “nothingness,” is also the same Anne who is greatly concerned about “dignity” and her reputation and how the family is seen. Only Anne cares enough to protect the family name and reputation by taking leave of “almost every house in the parish” because, she says, “I was told that they [the parishioners] wished it” (45). Just as her mother had “concealed [Sir Walter’s] failings and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years” (4, my emphasis), we learn that Anne, too, works to promote the “real respectability” of the Elliot family and name. Even Anne’s ability to understand Elliot “nothingness” from afar is actually intimately related to a similar evaluation of and great concern for how (and whether) she and her family are seen to that we saw in her father. Why is it then that we approve of Anne’s version of “pride” and “vanity,” her self-consciousness and desire for dignity, while we disapprove of Sir Walter’s and Elizabeth’s? The scheme that in the first few pages of Persuasion seem so starkly delineated – namely that Sir Walter embodies vanity while Anne is pure modesty – actually shows itself to be much more subtle and reflects the heated eighteenth-century philosophical debate about the possibility that all passions, including pride and vanity, could be the basis of virtue and benefit humanity. Austen characteristically moves beyond standard definitions and makes us question the terms themselves: just as Wentworth learns to question the virtue of “resolution,” the reader is asked to question the viciousness of “pride” and “vanity.”
Throughout the novel, Anne displays a constant longing to be loved, to be wanted, to be useful – in other words, to please and to be important. A variety of passages reveal this motivation as central to her character: “ [t]o be claimed for a good … is at least better than being rejected as no good at all; and Anne, glad to he thought of some use … readily agreed to stay”; “[h]er usefulness to little Charles would always give her some sweetness to the memory of her two months’ visit”; “their mutual friend answered for the satisfaction which a visit from Miss Elliot would give Mrs. Smith, and Anne therefore lost no time in going”; and finally, Anne reveals the major reason why she does not wish to go to Bath: “for who would be glad to see her when she arrived ?” (33, 93, 153, 135, my emphasis). Anne relishes the company of good listeners such as Mr. Elliot and Lady Russell, both of whom are uniquely similar “in the wish of really comprehending what had passed, and in the degree of concern for what she must have suffered in witnessing it” (144).8 In leaving Kellynch, she regrets only her separation from Lady Russell as she recognizes “the extraordinary blessing of having one such truly sympathizing friend as Lady Russell” (42, my emphasis). The irony is, of course, that it is precisely this friend who is the cause of (much of) Anne’s unhappiness. Anne, in short, longs to be heard, seen, understood, needed, and loved. This sounds like “vanity” in the sense that it is a desire for admiration and a great concern about others’ opinions – but is it a flaw? Does the reader witness it as weakness or strength? How are we to think of this trait in Anne?9
As it happens, the psychology of virtue which Austen develops in Persuasion curiously parallels the eighteenth-century debate among moral philosophers and theologians over whether self-esteem tends towards vice or virtue. The new evaluation of self-esteem, self-love, and the desire for praise in the philosophy of the time marked a radical turn away from Christian theologians, some of whom had said that “pride” in the sense of self-esteem was the worst of the deadly sins, but many of whom also had to admit the difficulty of “performing any good action, without some secret applause” (Lovejoy, 154-55). The pride of self-love, in fact, formed, together with sympathy, the two “keystones” in eighteenth century theories of motivation (Rothstein, 314).
This new regard for self-love and the desire for esteem was perhaps made most (in)famous by Bernard Mandeville, whose The Fable of the Bees: Private Vices, Publick Benefits shocked many readers. One of Mandeville’s most famous formulations of his main thesis – that society encourages private vice for the sake of its own peace and stability – is the following inflammatory claim: “the moral Virtues are the Political Offspring which Flattery begot upon Pride” (i.51). His suggestion is that the only way that humans can be cajoled into action which is called moral (and whatever is convenient to society is called “moral”) is by flattering and encouraging vices, especially vanity and pride, at an early age. His examples include the pedagogical techniques commonly and unreflectively used upon children, such as the way parents (and nursemaids) flatter children into better behavior: “There’s a delicate Curt’sy! O fine Miss! There’s a pretty Lady! Mama! Miss can make a better Curt’sy than her Sister Molly!” (i.53). Today we call it “positive reinforcement” or positive “mirroring” (Kohut). It is interesting that we can find a passage in Persuasion which exhibits this same technique – Mr. Shepherd uses it on Sir Walter: “Sir Walter …. had …. been flattered into his very best and most polished behaviour by Mr. Shepherd’s assurances of his being known, by report, to the Admiral, as a model of good breeding” (32). Sir Walter’s vanity leads him to be treated as a child; however, the passage also shows that vanity can be used to achieve better ends – in this case civility.
Mandeville’s was not the only voice in praise of vanity’s public benefits. The same was being said in much more orthodox Christian corners of the debate: Bishop Butler, for example, called “the desire for esteem” beneficial because it “regulate[s] our behaviour”: “[The desire for esteem] can no more be gratified, without contributing to the good of society, than [hunger] can be gratified without contributing to the preservation of the individual.”10
It was the Scottish Common Sense school, and most notably David Hume and Adam Smith, who gave the new moral psychology the popular shape which, I would argue, most influenced Jane Austen. Where Mandeville seeks to reduce all motives to vanity and imply that vanity is always a (private) vice, Hume and Smith draw much more subtle distinctions and allow for a vanity which can be more virtuous. Hume writes that “[i]t is very unjust in the world, when they feel any tincture of vanity in a laudable action, to depreciate it on that account, or ascribe it entirely to that motive …. Vanity is … closely allied with virtue.”11
Hume uses the images of self-regarding (i.e. mirroring) which Smith later takes up and which Austen uses thematically in Persuasion:
By our continual and earnest pursuit of a character, a name, a reputation in the world, we bring our own … conduct frequently in review, and consider how [it] appear[s] in the eyes of those who approach and regard us. This constant habit of surveying ourselves … keeps alive all the sentiments of right and wrong, and begets, in noble natures, a certain reverence for themselves as well as for others, which is the surest guardian of every virtue.12
Hume, in other words, prescribes an internal mirror for the sake of virtue: by “surveying ourselves” imaginatively we may come to “reverence” others by reverencing ourselves.
Smith in his extremely successful first work. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, personifies this internal mirror and places it squarely in the centre of his entire moral psychology, calling it “the impartial spectator” (sometimes the “Demigod within the breast” or “the great inmate of the soul”). We automatically imagine this “impartial spectator,” says Smith, in all our daily actions, and more particularly, we imagine how the spectator would think and feel about our responses to any given situation. By approximating his feelings, we can enter into the experiences of others around us, from whom we would otherwise be hopelessly separated. We must also strongly desire to please this “demigod,” in order to achieve virtue: our ability to imagine and our desire to please this impartial spectator allow us, even when we are biased by our own involvement in a situation, to distance ourselves from our situation and view it as another might from afar. The success of this dynamic is directly related to one’s sensibility and powers of imagination. Rather than leading us astray, imagination and strong feelings are actually the key to virtue (TMS, 9).
One final feature of this moral psychology which also figures importantly in Persuasion is the “inward eye” (TMS, 113). Human beings turn their eyes inward to divide each individual into two: a subject and an object, an I and a me. This purely human self-consciousness is what enables us to judge, and to measure ourselves against, the standard of the impartial spectator. The keenness with which we can imagine the impartial spectator will determine how well our internal eye or what he calls the “Eye of Mankind”13 functions. Only when we gain the distance from ourselves, which sympathy with, or love for, the impartial spectator enables us to achieve, do we become capable of seeing ourselves with others’ eyes. It is this very distance which, in turn, is essential to the impartiality of the spectator lodged in our breast.14
I would like to suggest briefly how Anne Elliot embodies this “impartial spectator” within the novel. That Anne is a spectator hardly needs to be proven: partly because “her word has no weight,” she is constantly keenly observing all that passes around her, establishing a silent center to the whole novel. That Anne is sympathetic and capable of understanding multiple points of view is shown partly by the variety of characters who confide in her. That Anne desires badly to please, to love, I have suggested already. In other words, Anne uniquely combines all the necessary ingredients in Smith’s recipe for virtue.
Her impartiality, her ability to sympathize, her sensibility, and her powers of imagination are all crystallized within the one metaphor of the traveller. In a crucial passage, when Anne has just travelled far enough away from Kellynch to practice once again “the art of knowing our own nothingness,” she describes how differently the Musgroves live and “[s]he acknowledge[s] it to be very fitting that every little social commonwealth should dictate its own matters of discourse.” Saying this much would have demonstrated Anne’s impartiality, “open-mindedness” if you will, but she continues: “and [she] hoped, ere long, to become a not unworthy member of the one she was now transplanted into” (45). This moving passage signifies Anne’s willingness to empathize, give domestic comfort, and carry her “home” with her wherever she goes. In a sense, it is the “art of pleasing” which she describes, and yet it is entirely different from the art of Mrs. Clay to whom that phrase is applied in the novel (20). It is the kind of conforming to others’ ways that takes an extraordinary amount of observation and strength. Anne can understand the various languages of the little commonwealths and speak in them without hypocrisy. She can even monitor her linguistic progress, for she has an internal standard from which to judge – that is, she gains a clear enough sense of herself, by seeing herself from afar, as the impartial spectator would, to be aware of her harmony or disharmony with her surroundings. This dynamic of self regarding, “measuring oneself up” in the “mirror of society,” or using the so-called “internal eye,” is the type of “social” vanity which leads to virtue.
It is also the side of Anne which led her to allow herself to be persuaded by Lady Russell to break off her engagement with Wentworth. “How is it,” many readers ask, “that Anne could have been persuaded to give up Wentworth in the first place? Should we think less of her for this?” Many readers, along with Wentworth, think that Anne’s ability to be persuaded is a consequence of excessive selflessness or weakness of sentiment and begin to prefer Louisa’s vigorous stubbornness. But Austen (by using a Smithian moral psychology) shows that persuadability results from a greater love and strength of feeling. In other words, Wentworth – and careful readers – come to learn the strength it takes to bend. Contrary to appearances, Anne is not only more resolute than the stubborn Louisa and Wentworth, but also has more “pride” than Sir Walter, and more retentive feeling than Benwick.
Sir Walter’s is a vanity which limits itself to externals, as he demonstrates in the memorable scene in Bath where he stands by the window counting “eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them” (134). And when not based on their appearance, his interest in others is based on their location between “A” and “Z” – that is, on the location (and length!) of their entry in the “Book of Books.” He counts people; he alphabetizes people – purely according to external, extrinsic qualities. “External display,” in the words of David Monaghan, “has become an end in itself in Kellynch” (Monaghan, Structures, 144), and that is where Sir Walter goes wrong. Sir Walter’s mistake is that he limits his desire to regard himself to the mirror in his dressing-room rather than extending it to the parishioners, for example, or to the worthier members of his family: he does not turn his vanity towards the “Mirror of Society” (TMS, 110), in which and through which Anne regards herself. This social concern (that is, the desire to please the impartial spectator) is what separates Anne’s desire to be praiseworthy from her father’s desire for simple praise, flattery, or false glory. Smith writes that “the great secret of education is to direct vanity to its proper objects” (TMS, 259): the object is not to extinguish, but to channel the so-called “selfish” passions. If we return to the initial description of Sir Walter’s flaw with this in mind, we can better understand the role of vanity in the novel as a whole. “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character” (4): this formulation is crucial for the moral psychology presented through the novel, for Sir Walter’s fault is not so much that he begins in vanity, but that that is where he ends.
Anne, on the other hand, gradually strengthens her self-esteem by acting virtuously and caring for others around her. It is this habit of self-regarding which gives Anne the strength (eventually) to become her own judge, to maintain her own judgments even when her faulty external spectators disapprove. Consider the following important passage:
I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe I was right, much as I suffered from it …. I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with. (234)
“[W]e can be more indifferent about the applause, and in some measure, despise the censure of the world,” Smith writes, “secure that, however misunderstood or misrepresented, we are the natural and proper objects of approbation” (TMS, 112). In the absence of fair judges around her, Anne relies on her own relationship with the impartial spectator in her breast and acts in all capacities of the courtroom – she is the prosecution, the defense and the judge of her own internal trial.
In a world particularly devoid of “authority,” as Tony Tanner has observed, Anne, the travelling heroine, homeless, yet always carrying her “center” with her, functions as a model of the “new” moral agent in a changing world. This changing, decentralized context is part of the essential need to have self-esteem. It is this self-esteem, or self-regard, finally, which gives Anne the “resources for solitude,” that, we are told, her sisters so decidedly lack (14, 39) “I know you do not mind being left alone,” says Mary, and for once she is right (58). When Anne plays the piano, she is little attended to: “She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation.” Anne, who does not know the happiness of being listened to (48), by the end of the novel “pierces a man’s soul” with her words (Tave). She functions as the central moral authority of the novel, and gradually some of the others unconsciously acknowledge this. When Louisa falls, for example, Charles and Wentworth “seemed to look to her for directions.” “Anne, Anne,” cried Charles, “what is to be done next? What in heaven’s name, is to be done next?” Captain Wentworth’s eyes were also turned towards her” (106). As readers we triumph in her recognition; we want her word to have weight – we want Anne to have the glory she deserves. But is it our vanity that we are gratifying or do we imagine we are gratifying hers? Anne has had her admiration all along, however, where it counts most: inside. The little demigod inside her breast has been clapping his hands as long as we have known her. And Austen, meanwhile, has shown herself to be even more of a philosopher than most critics have suspected.
1 C.f. Brown, 129.
2 C.f. Lovejoy on becoming “slaves to mankind” through vanity (200) and Smith on vanity’s social side: “vanity is almost always a sprightly and gay, and very often a good-natured passion. Pride is always a grave, a sullen, and a severe one” (TMS, 257).
3 C.f. “[A] mere mirror instead of the authorising and authoritative sacred text” (Tanner, 241).
4 C.f. “Anne had not wanted this visit to Uppercross to learn that a removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of only three miles, will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea. She had never been staying there before, without being struck by it, or without wishing that other Elliots could have the advantage in seeing how unknown, or unconsidered there, were the affairs which at Kellynch Hall were treated as of such general publicity and pervading interest” (46).
C.f. Smith: “I can form a just comparison between those great objects and the little objects around me, in no other way, than by transporting myself, at least in fancy, to a different station, from whence I can survey both at nearly equal distances (TMS, 135).
5 C.f. Ruoff in Bloom, ed. Jane Austen, pp. 63-65.
6 C.f. Anne “saw no dignity in anything short of [expediently clearing away the claims of all Sir Walter’s creditors]” (12-13).
7 “Of pride, indeed, there was perhaps scarcely enough” (Emma, 210).
8 Emma: “never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s” (84).
9 It is actually through Anne’s own thoughts that we learn of her superiority – and therefore additionally remarkable that the reader does not censure her as proud or vain. Note the passage where Anne almost envies the Miss Musgroves’ importance at home: “they were of consequence at home, and favorites abroad. Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments” (41). Another interesting scene is when Anne (silently of course) implies that she deserves more “sympathy and goodwill” than Captain Benwick but receives less (97).
10 Sermons (1724): 5th ed., 1765, p. 11, quoted in Lovejoy, 178-80.
11 Philosophical Essays on Morals, Literature, and Politics, Vol. 1, Essay XI, “Of the dignity or Meanness of Human Nature” (Quoted in Lovejoy).
12 Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 75.
13 C.f. TMS, pp. 109-13, 153.
14 Compare with Freud’s notion of ego and super-ego: Eighteenth-century terms are love, not power struggle.
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