Jane Austen and the Political Economy of Beauty

Project: Research project

Project Details


It is a truth universally acknowledged that human nature favours the “survival of the prettiest” (Etcoff 1999). This project aims to investigate a niche area in Austen studies, namely beauty, and the research design combines theoretical investigations, archival research, and textual analysis. Three questions guide this study: What are the ideal beauty standards for men and women in Regency England? In what way is beauty determined by political economy? How does Austen respond to the ideology of beauty? This project consists of a series of interrogations, and the focus is threefold.

First, this project contextualizes the “beauty myth” (Wolf 1991) by focusing on the nineteenth- century political economy. Natural beauty is related not only to nature but also to the “natural laws” of political economy. To Adam Smith (1759), an asocial creature lacks a sense of personal beauty, for beauty has to do with a person’s productive participation in society. This project assesses how the dawn of (beauty) capitalism operates in the civil society and further explores various aspects of: (1) government policies, (2) liberty and the liberty of trade, and (3) the division of (beauty) labour in Austen’s time.

Second, given that Austen is an avid reader of newspapers, this project analyses how newspapers impact the nineteenth-century population by foregrounding different beauty ideals and beauty products to naturalize class as well as socio-political and racial ideologies. Beauty discourses in the print culture can construct various ideals, propagate as well as question Continental aesthetics, and position England as the main driver of the global economy. This study will analyse two popular newspapers and their impact on: (1) the beautification of the self, (2) the consumption of (international) goods, and (3) (beauty) injustice.

Third, this project will examine Austen’s convoluted relationships with the Regency ideology of beauty. In her writings, beauty and a fashionable lifestyle often operate as a civilising as well as socializing force. This study will explore Austen’s critical evaluation of the gentry and beau monde in her writings and highlight her view of beauty on: (1) the micropolitics of self- management, (2) the family’s microfinance, (3) the making of marriage decisions, (4) the perpetuation of patriarchy, and (5) the building of an empire.

This two-year project will contribute to a new understanding of Austen’s works and the political economy of beauty in Regency England.
Effective start/end date1/01/2130/06/23


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