Deborah Yaffe

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In it for the money

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 4 2014 01:00PM

Not being a math type, I have never spent much time trying to calculate the contemporary equivalents of the sums mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels: Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year, Emma Woodhouse’s £30,000 dowry, etc.


So I turned with interest to a recent Telegraph story assessing “the modern-day fortunes of Jane Austen's fictional heroes,” wherein we learn that “Mr Darcy's annual income of £10,000 in around 1803 would be worth £796,000 per year today” – in American terms, roughly $1.3 million.


Although by most standards, that’s a more than comfortable income, the story goes on to point out the inherent complications of these historical calculations. Two hundred years ago, labor was cheap and manufactured goods weren’t: the financially stressed Price family can still afford to employ a servant, while despite the wealth of Mansfield Park, Fanny is expected to mend her own clothes. Today, it’s the opposite: we toss aside our ripped clothing because we can get a new T-shirt for $10, but we fix our own meals because it’s too expensive to hire a cook.


The Telegraph piece tries to manage these differences by employing a concept called “prestige value,” which supposedly takes account of how the amounts Austen mentions stack up against Britain’s per capita GDP in the early nineteenth century. But the results strike me as bizarrely out of whack with the social world Austen portrays.


According to the Telegraph’s “prestige value” calculations, the Dashwood sisters and their mother are living on $730,000 a year at Barton Cottage. Captain Wentworth’s prize money works out to $36.6 million, and Emma Woodhouse’s dowry is the equivalent of nearly $44 million. Even Catherine Morland brings $4.4 million into her marriage.


Such numbers would put all these characters, even the strapped Dashwoods and the modest Morlands, well into the top few percentage points of the current U.S. income or wealth distributions.


I know that Regency England was a place of great inequality, where the many people whose lives Austen doesn’t chronicle lived in sometimes abject poverty. But still these numbers seem wildly overstated to me. The Dashwoods, too poor to accept Willoughby’s gift of a horse, aren’t living the lives of a family with $730,000. Emma, though a local queen bee, isn’t dwelling in the hedge-fund stratosphere.


Yes, Mr. Darcy seems to have Kennedy-style wealth in the world the Bennets inhabit. But Captain Wentworth? A guy with $36.6 million would surely be fending off the advances of more than the Musgrove girls.


4 comments
Sep 6 2014 04:44AM by Judith

I'm with you. They really seem to have missed the spirit of the thing. The Dashwoods can't afford to buy sugar! They have no diaries. I get that in some ways they may have lived "better..." well, at least differently than we. But, I think we should take Austen's presentation of the characters, regardless of specific numbers. (But then, I'm not much for numbers either, hence my reliance on 'the spirit of the thing.' :)

Sep 6 2014 03:04PM by dyaffe

I'm not actually sure if the sugar thing is in the book or just in the indelible Emma Thompson movie -- I was trying to look up some of those details in the text and couldn't find them (though they may well still be there). But in any case, I certainly think you're right. At the 2012 JASNA conference, Sandy Lerner gave a presentation arguing that JA didn't really understand the financial requirements of her rich characters and allowed them to have things (like carriages) that they couldn't have afforded on the incomes she attributed to them. Interesting argument.

It's very hard to do these historical comparisons, in any case: even the wealthiest person in Georgian England didn't have indoor plumbing, electricity or telephone service, which many very poor people in the world today take for granted.

Sep 7 2014 05:16AM by Judith

Ahh-hh - I didn't even think about the sugar line only being in the movie. It seemed so authentic, but I'll search the book also. What is for sure is that Austen means us to understand that they are in very straitened financial circumstances. my fourth sentence up there, btw, was supposed to be "They have no dowries..." I think it was late at night.

The possibility that Austen didn't really have a handle on some financial details and who could have afforded what is interesting. She comes across as a very, very careful writer, but it wouldn't be particularly surprising if she didn't have a complete command of finance. I wonder if her contemporaries would have noticed or commented, if that's the case? I don't remember hearing anyone mention this before.

Sep 7 2014 03:54PM by dyaffe

IIRC, Lerner's point was that because Austen came from a lower-gentry family, she didn't really know how much money it took to run a big estate, maintain a fancy carriage, etc. -- she knew about the things she herself spent money on (clothes, etc.) but not about the big-ticket items, just as, for instance, I don't have the first idea what it actually costs to have a private plane. But I agree with you that she is a careful writer (detailed chronologies of her stories have been extracted from the books and found to match specific calendar years, for instance), so I'd like to see more discussion of this topic before concluding that she was inaccurate.

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