Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 10 2014 02:00PM

A fascinating column in a recent edition of the Financial TimesFT Magazine uses the income data in Pride and Prejudice to illustrate a larger point: that in the twenty-first century, citizenship has replaced social class as the most important marker of relative privilege.


Let other pens debate that point. I’m more interested in columnist Tim Harford’s calculation of the contemporary equivalents of the income Elizabeth Bennet can expect if she does – or does not – marry Mr. Darcy. And I’m happy to say that his numbers make far more intuitive sense than the wildly inflated ones tossed around a couple of months ago, the last time British journalists concerned themselves with the economic underpinnings of Jane Austen’s world.


According to Harford, the Bennet family’s annual income is £430 per capita. If Elizabeth marries Darcy and acquires half his £10,000 a year, her income rises more than tenfold; if her father dies and she fails to marry, she ends up with £40 a year.


Place the incomes of Elizabeth and Darcy at similar points on the 2004 economic scale – his in the top 0.1 percent, hers at twice the national average – and “all the gaps shrink dramatically,” Harford reports: Darcy makes £400,000 (about $633,000 in US dollars) and Elizabeth Bennet can count on a spinsterly provision of £23,000 ($36,000).


“Marriage in the early 19th century would have increased her income more than 100 times; in the early 21st century, the ratio has shrunk to 17 times,” Harford says. Actually, I think the twenty-first-century ratio is closer to 9, but that only reinforces Harford's point -- that social class is a far less powerful determinant of economic well-being today than it was in Austen’s time.


Why is Austen always the author to whom we turn for insight into the economics of the early nineteenth century? (The most famous recent example of this phenomenon is Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty, a much-praised book that used examples from Austen to illustrate its argument about capitalism and inequality. Or so I’m told by those who’ve read it.)


One explanation, of course, is that Austen’s stories are so familiar that they need no introduction. But surely we also rely on Austen because she pays such close attention to economics. She doesn’t just tell us that Darcy is rich and Elizabeth not so much. With characteristic precision, she gives us the numbers.


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