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Archive for the ‘Money in Regency’ Category

A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls! - Mrs. Bennet on Mr. Bingley’s income, Pride and Prejudice, Volume One, Chapter One

One of the hardest concepts for today’s readers to grasp in Jane Austen’s novels are the economic realities of the times. What do her numbers mean in modern terms? What was the standard of living during the regency era? When Olivia Williams as Jane Austen blurted to her brother Henry in Miss Austen Regrets, “Sense and Sensibility has brought me £140. May I not be proud of that?” – how can we translate that sentence so that it would hold some meaning for us?

A currency converter provided by the National Archives in the U.K. provides a rough idea of what these 1810 figures mean. Further clarification from experts will round out our understanding. Please keep in mind that the sums in the third column of the chart are merely approximations. At this precise time U.S. citizens should multiply these figures by two to derive a dollar amount. I am not an expert, and I will leave more detailed explanations to economists like Brad de Long.

To put some of these sums into perspective, the average annual income for an English laborer or farmer in 1800 was around 15-20 pounds. To live comfortably, an English gentleman like Mr. Bennet, would require around 300 pounds per year per individual, or over fifteen times the amount for a working man who supported his family. As you can see from the figures, as long as Mr. Bennet lived, his family was comfortably off. But the situation would change drastically the moment he died. After that unhappy event, Mrs. Bennet would be expected to live off the 4% interest of her £5,000 marriage settlement, or £200 per year. No wonder she became shrill every time she thought of her unmarried daughters, for Mr. Bennet’s entire yearly £2,000 income and his house were entailed to Mr. Collins. After Mrs. Bennet’s death, Lizzy would receive just 1/5 of her mother’s marriage portion, and she would bring to her marriage only 40 pounds per year.

Today it is hard to accurately determine the spending power of these sums (see the different estimates of Mr. Bingley’s income in the example below). Factors that influence spending power are war, inflation, cost of goods, housing and the geographic area in which the dwellings were located. In any event, Mr. Darcy’s and Mr. Bingley’s incomes would still be regarded as exceedingly fine. In fact, Mr. Darcy’s 10,000 per year represents only 4% interest of his vast fortune. And Mr. Bingley, though he receives only 4,000 per year, inherited almost 3.4 million pounds from his tradesman father in today’s terms.

…the income would normally come from agricultural profits on land or from other property and investments (in Bingley’s case it turns out the be the latter). It is not easy to translate incomes of the time into today’s money. By some calculations, the effects of inflation mean that a pound in Jane Austen’s time has the same value as almost forty pounds today; if so, Bingley’s income would be the equivalent of 150,000 to 200,000 a year in today’s pounds (or around $250,000-$300,000 in current U.S. money). Altered economic condition, however, make estimates like this tricky: for example, goods tended to be much dearer at that time, in relative terms, while labor tended to be much cheaper. In addition, average incomes in this period, even when adjusted for inflation, were much lower than today, so Bingley’s income represents a far sharper deviation from the prevailing norm than its current equivalent would be.” – Shapard, Annotated Pride and Prejudice, P 5

One can now understand why in Sense and Sensibility Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were forced to economize. When John Dashwood, under his wife’s influence, reneged on his promise to his dying father to contribute substantial sums of money to his step family, the women were forced to live on 500 pounds per year. This paltry sum would have barely covered their living expenses had it not been for Sir John Middleton’s generosity in inviting his cousin to live in a cottage on his estate.

Like the Dashwood women, Jane Austen, her mother, and sister also experienced chronic money worry. However, through the sale of her books Jane was able to earn a much needed supplemental income. While the £140 she earned from the sales of Sense and Sensibility does not sound like much, it represents close to $9,800 in today’s U.S. sums. In fact, the proceeds from the sale of her four books netted her over 23,000 pounds or around 46,000 dollars towards the end of her life. After her brother Henry’s financial reversals, this money must have been a welcome boon indeed.

Now that you’ve gained some understanding of what these sums of money mean, please read the following statement made by Mrs. Bennet in Volume 3 of Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 17:

Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.

How much does ten thousand a year in 1810 represent?
a) £339, 600
b) $680,000
c) A princely sum
d) In relative terms, all of the above

Georgianna Darcy’s marriage portion is 30,000. How much annual income would this sum derive?

a) £3,000
b) £12,000
c) £1,200
d) £120
Sources and resources:

  • Shapard, David M., The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, Anchor Books, 2004
*References, Acknowledgements, Links, and Abbreviations, For the Male Voices Web Site
**Literary Study Tour: Jane Austen, 1998
***Ian Littlewood, Jane Austen: A Critical Assessment, p 205, 1998

Addendum:

To learn more about the ‘Cost of Living in Jane Austen’s England: Vulgar Economy’, click here . This article from the Jane Austen Centre goes into further detail about the Mrs. and Misses Dashwoods’ economic situation.

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Helpful Readers,

Yesterday I received some extremely interesting questions from a reader about renting Kellynch Hall. Unfortunately, they came at a time when I am entertaining house guests. I cannot apply myself to the task until later this week, except to provide this link to Jane Austen’s Economics. Can anyone answer part or all of the questions below? Your comments are welcome and I thank you ahead of time for helping out.


If you cannot answer the questions but are interested in the topic, here are some links to online articles from the Jane Austen Society of Australia: One is about Kellynch Hall, which contains all the references to it in Persuasion, and one written by Jon Spence about Stoneleigh Abbey, the great house belonging to Mrs. Austen’s side of the family.

Click here for a fun trivia quiz about the Eliots of Kellynch Hall, and here for the website, Kellynch Hall.

Click here for my article, How Rich is Fitzwilliam Darcy? and some material supporting Brad de Long’s words.

Enough dithering, here are the questions:

  1. How much would it cost to live at Kellynch annually? Simply, that is, without sorbet and six liveried footmen–just the way Lady Eliot would have kept the place running in the black.
  2. Just how much rent did Admiral and Mrs. Croft pay for a furnished house of that consequence?
  3. Would the rent pay for building maintenance and upkeep or just the cost of running the house and keeping the servants?
  4. Would Sir Walter’s debts be whittled down by renting Kellynch? Is he making a small profit on the rental? Or just not losing money, treading water so to speak?
  5. It seems that the Crofts took over the charity obligations since Anne “was so sure” of the poor being relieved when the Eliots left for Bath. Was that usual for renters? Why did that duty not fall on the rector or the parish?

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