Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 21 2014 01:00PM

The UK’s Independent newspaper just asked one hundred people working in the arts – writers, publishers, actors, directors – to pick their favorite literary characters. (Actually, I only count ninety-nine selectors, but never mind).


The choices range widely, from childhood favorites (Harriet the Spy and Anne of Green Gables are represented, along with British faves by Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton), to books that just about every literate English-speaker has probably cracked open at some point (Great Expectations, Hamlet), to difficult modernist masterworks often left unfinished on the bedside table (Ulysses, The Magic Mountain).


Naturally, we Janeites are above such vulgar matters as noticing who won Most Mentions in a totally random newspaper survey, so this is just for the record: Jane Austen won. Nyah-nyah. Told you she was great.


Five Austen characters – one from each of the novels except Northanger Abbey – were chosen as favorites: Elizabeth Bennet (no surprise there), along with Emma Woodhouse, Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot and Mrs. Norris. (Once again, poor Fanny Price gets dissed in her own novel. And by evil Aunt Norris, no less.)


Austen edged out Dickens, with four nominations (three from Great Expectations, one from Oliver Twist); Philip Roth (three nominations, from three different novels); and Joseph Heller (three nominations, all from Catch-22). Seven other writers, all men, garnered two nominations apiece, and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary was picked twice, if you include all the selections of novelist David Mitchell, who insisted on choosing four beloved characters instead of just one.


Only 19 of the 83 authors represented on the list are female, as are only 27 of the 101 characters mentioned, which may tell us something about the patriarchal domination of English literature, both on and off the page. Incidentally, these statistics also tell us that Austen created 20 percent of the female characters singled out as favorites by the Independent's arty types.


But who’s counting?



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