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Posts Tagged ‘Cost of Living in Regency England’

In Sense and Sensibility, a conversation between Marianne and Elinor during Edward Ferrars’ visit to Barton Cottage reveals how much income Marianne considers suitable for setting up house. The Dashwoods had been reduced to living on £500 per year, or around 17,000 pounds in today’s terms. Marianne mentions a sum of £1,800 – 2,000 pounds a year as being adequate in an age when male servants earned from £20 to £60 a year and a female servant from £5 to £15 pounds per year. While these incomes seem desperately low, room and board were usually included. Coal cost 50 pounds per year, and the rent of a medium sized house in London ranged from £12 to £25 per year.* If a family’s income was less than £100 for a single person or £200 for a couple, then the head of the house would probably have to work for a living.

“An income of two thousand pounds was considered quite comfortable, allowing people to maintain a large house, keep horses and a carriage, and employ eleven servants.” (Life in Regency England: More Than Games). Such an income would not have been enough to maintain Norland Park (below), but it would have been quite enough for Willoughby, who married an heiress with £50,000. The interest on that sum would have been £2,000 per year.

Edward: “As moderate as those of the rest of the world, I believe. I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but, like every body else it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so.”

“Strange that it would!” cried Marianne. “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?”

“Grandeur has but little,” said Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.”

“Elinor, for shame!” said Marianne, “money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.”

“Perhaps,” said Elinor, smiling, “we may come to the same point. Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?”

“About eighteen hundred or two thousand a-year; not more than that.”

Elinor laughed. “Two thousand a-year! One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end.”

“And yet two thousand a-year is a very moderate income,” said Marianne.“A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.”

Elinor smiled again, to hear her sister describing so accurately their future expenses at Combe Magna.

“Hunters!” repeated Edward—“But why must you have hunters? Every body does not hunt.”

Marianne coloured as she replied, “But most people do.”

Knowing her situation and prospects, we see how far fetched Marianne’s statements must sound to Elinor and Edward. A woman without fortune needed luck on her side to snag a husband with such an income: she could not depend on looks alone, although great beauty, such as Lady Emma Hamilton possessed, helped a great deal. If a woman had only beauty, then an extravagant man like Willoughby, who could not live without his hunters, must look else where for a bride. As Stephanie Edelman writes in a JASNA Essay contest:

    Austen demonstrates throughout Sense and Sensibility just how much inheritance influences the marriage market. Willoughby, who “had always been expensive,” intended to “re‑establish [his] circumstances by marrying a woman of fortune”­–Miss Grey, with her “fifty thousand pounds” ‑‑despite his attraction to Marianne. His actions are not surprising, for even Mrs. Jennings explains that “when there is plenty of money on one side, and next to none on the other” romance can take a back seat to economics. Beauty sometimes compensates for a lack of fortune, as Mrs. Jennings hopes when she claims that Marianne would be perfect for Colonel Brandon, “for he was rich and she was handsome”, but a loss of beauty lowers one in the marriage market. Because Marianne worries herself sick over Willoughby and, in John Dashwood’s opinion, “destroys the bloom forever”, he “question[s] whether Marianne now, will marry a man worth more than five or six hundred a‑year, at the utmost”. Thus we see families being formed, not on the basis of love and respect, but on inheritances, yearly incomes, and how much one is willing to pay for beauty. – The Family of Dashwood by Stephanie Edelman

For a fuller explanation of incomes during the Regency era and their relative value today, click on my other post, Pride and Prejudice Economics.

More links on the topic:

*The Period House: Style, Detail, and Decoration: 1774 – 1914, Richard Russell Lawrence and Teresa Chris, Phoenix Illustrated, 1996, 192 pages

Images: 1st – Sense and Sensibility 2007; 2nd – Sense and Sensibility 1996.

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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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A penny isn’t what it used to be, as you’ll discover on the following sites. For fuller explanations on the relative value of incomes and the cost of goods during the regency, read my other posts on the topic: Pride and Prejudice Economics and In Jane Austen’s Own Words: Economic Sense and Sensibility.

For more links on costs during this period, click on the following:

Update:

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