Today, a woman guides a young friend through the
early 19th century. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
It's 1816, and a fictional
teacher, Mrs. B, talks with young Caroline about
political economy. Caroline has been reading the
classics. She tells Mrs. B about Telemachus's
return to the city of Salentum. Telemachus
complains to Mentor that the city, once rich in
gold and art, is now poor. Mentor replies, "Look at
the farms and vineyards around the city. They now
What good is a superb city without good farms and
honorable labor? It's nothing but a monster with a
great head and a withered body. Mentor says they've
shifted Salentum's wealth from the arts to
agriculture, and they're healthier for it.
Mrs. B sighs in frustration and wheels on Caroline.
"Young lady, you seriously need some grounding in
And that's how
Jane Marcet began her book on political
economics. This instructional book, done in
dialogue form, is one of many she wrote for the
young ladies of the early 1800s.
"Flourishing cities," Mrs. B tells Caroline, "are
the means of fertilizing the fields around them."
How can you take wealth from the city and give it
to the farm? The city and the farm form one organic
whole. In the person of Mrs. B, Marcet skillfully
leads Caroline away from Mentor's classic
isolationism and recreates Adam Smith's arguments about
But economic interdependence had another face in
1816. The female half of society was
disenfranchised. When Mrs. B tells Caroline she
must learn political economics, Caroline cries,
"How? I cannot attend [university] lectures."
Indeed she could not. Women were barred from
universities in 1816.
So Mrs. B says she'll teach Caroline. She explains:
"It has been my good fortune to have passed a great
part of my life in a society where this science
[was] a frequent topic of discussion." She has, in
short, learned the way all early-19th-century women
learned academic subjects. She was an alert fly on
Mrs. B launches into capitalistic theory. Caroline
counters again and again with pastoral ideas from
Along the lawn where scatter'd hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,
And every want to luxury allied.
Nonsense, Mrs. B insists. Personal wealth is a
by-product of a healthy economy. It doesn't rob the
poor; it helps to feed them.
Then we realize Marcet is equipping the Carolines
of her male-dominated world by driving home the
same aggressive economic principles that shaped
that world. The publisher of the American editions
of this superb and mind-churning book, this study
in compromise under adversity, has falsely put the
name of a male author on it. In 1816 he had to --
if he wanted anyone to buy it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Marcet, J.H., Conversations on Political
Economy, in which the Elements of the Science are
Familiarly Explained, London: Printed for
Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown,
Paternoster-Row, 1816. (This is the source in which I
did most of my reading for this episode. Its
frontispiece dodges the question of Marcet's gender,
saying simply, "by the author of Conversations
on Chemistry" -- another instructional book by
I looked through several later editions of
Political Economy (and other Marcet
books as well) at Harvard's Gutman Library. One
Rev. J.L. Blake added discussion questions to her
books for students in the Boston school system. The
books were then sold under his name. If he altered
the actual text of Political Economy
in that process, it was obvious to me. Among the
title pages of the many editions of Marcet's many
books in the Gutman Library I saw the names of
three other male authors: J.L. Comstock, Thomas P.
Jones, and even Sir Humphry Davy. A typical
frontispiece from a Marcet book follows:
The Fifteenth American, from the last London
in which the
ELEMENTS OF THAT SCIENCE
ILLUSTRATED BY EXPERIMENTS
AND 38 ENGRAVINGS ON WOOD
Additions and Corrections
TO WHICH ARE NOW ADDED
Explanations of the text -- Directions for
Apparatus, and a Vocabulary of Terms --
with a List of Interesting Experiments.
BY J.L. COMSTOCK, M.D.
together with a new and extensive
SERIES OF QUESTIONS
BY REV. J.L. BLAKE, A.M.
BEACH AND BECKWITH
A.S. Beckwith & Co.
For more on Jane Marcet see Episodes 741, 744,
745, and 828. For more on her Political
Economy, see Episode 950.
From a 1911 edition of
The Vicar of Wakefield
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
The title page of the 1830 edition of Jane
attributed to J. L. Blake
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