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.