Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. Folks today who love Jane Austen are eager to find ways to acquit her of being a woman of the long 18th century. Click here for the first post in the series.
CMP#62 Shocking Compared to Whom?
So says an October 2020 New Yorker article, and who would dispute it? Mr. Darcy's entrance into the ballroom was followed by a "report which was in general circulation within five minutes... of his having ten thousand a year." Everyone seems to know how much money everybody else has: Mr. Collins knows Elizabeth is only entitled to one thousand pounds in the four percents after her mother’s death.
A poem by W.H. Auden, quoted above, surmises that Austen might be shocked to meet Lord Byron in heaven, but she is herself shocking because she's so frank and unsentimental about "the economic basis of society." However, as I’ve come to realize, the statement: “Jane Austen’s novels are preoccupied with money” is incomplete and somewhat misleading. The statement should be, “Jane Austen’s novels, like most novels of her time, were preoccupied with money.”
Many, many, novels of this period include exact descriptions of incomes, expectations, disappointments, and inheritances, especially as they relate to someone’s ability to get married. You can literally pick any18th-century novel at random and find passages referring to these things. And, just as in Sense & Sensibility, the financial circumstances of the main characters are often laid out in the introductory passages. Here is a sampling:
Sarah Scotts’ 1766 novel Sir George Ellison opens with the situation and family tree of a man descended from “an ancient and opulent family,” who decided to give his son George "two thirds of the sum of £4,000 pounds of which he was possessed." More last-will-and-testament-type prose follows: the father “took a bond from his son, which secured to [his siblings] in case of their father’s death, their share of the 4000 pounds to be paid them in two years after his decease, if by that time of age, and obtained his promise, that during those two years, the money should bear six per cent interest, thus providing for their convenience as much as could be done without hurting their elder brother, whom possibly a more speedy payment might distress.”
In Charlotte Smith’s Celestina (1791), the author explains why the family estate is sadly encumbered. She goes back to before the time of Charles the First, down through the great-grandfather and grandfather of the last owner, “but the manners of the times in which he lived; and a disposition gay and volatile, had led the last possessor into expenses, which, if they did not oblige him to sell, had obliged him to mortgage great part of this, as well as all his other estates; and being charged at his death with twelve hundred a year to his widow, and the interest of ten thousand pounds given to his daughter, they slowly and with difficulty produced, under the management of very careful executors, little more than sufficient to pay such charges, and the interest of the money for which they were mortgaged...[and so on]”
In Elizabeth Helme’s Louisa, or, the Cottage in the Moor (1787), a widow named Mrs. Rivers narrates her backstory to Louisa. In introducing herself and her own circumstances, she goes back to her grandfather and, over several pages, explains his social standing, the source of the family income, the grandfather's lack of thrift, his purchase of an army commission for his son, the income her mother brought to the marriage, her parents' income and how they handled their money--and all of this to a total stranger who has stumbled upon her cottage! "My father was the only son of a gentleman of small fortune, who had a place in one of the public offices, which brought him about four hundred pounds a year. By living up to the full of what he possessed, he had it only in his power to procure a pair of colours for his son. [who advanced in the army, then returned home] “where, after remaining two years, he closed his only parent’s eyes (his mother expiring in giving him birth). [He went abroad and] married the daughter of an officer lately dead, who had two thousand pounds in the British funds.... (etc.)"
In the New Yorker article referenced above, professor Louis Menand explains the "joke" behind Austen's remark that Augusta Hawkins brought “so many thousands as would always be called ten” to her marriage with Mr. Elton. "Austen’s nineteenth-century readers would have known... a fortune of ten thousand pounds represents the minimum point on the money curve.” Ten thousand pounds invested at five percent yields 500 pounds a year. In Alfred, or the Wilds of Strathnarven, a long-lost rich uncle in declares upon meeting his poverty-stricken niece that he would give her £10,000 on her wedding-day. In real life, the governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, gifted £10,000 to his god-daughter Eliza, Jane Austen's cousin.
While 500 pounds a year wouldn't fund a lavish lifestyle, it would provide that cushion of safety that kept you in the genteel class. As Elinor and Marianne's conversation in Sense & Sensibility makes clear, you'd need more than £500 a year to live in style. Marianne named £2,000 a year as "a competence," the minimum amount of money you'd need to rise above sordid considerations about money. Otherwise, “money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it."
In fact, this "was a substantial sum," Shannon Chamberlain writes, "enough to place a family in what we would now call the one percent." When we understand how few people had £2,000 or more annually, we understand why Marianne is being so silly.
In Constance (1785), the heroine’s father has that desirable £2,000 a year, but he lives beyond his income; he dies, leaving his widow and daughter in debt. The author gives us the details: “Five thousand pounds in the funds had been left to [Constance’s mother] by a relation soon after her marriage, the interest of which her husband [had promised to] accumulate as a fortune for his daughter,” but dad invested it all in a canal scheme.
The widow moves in with her relatives, rents out the mansion, and hopes the canal will pay off one day. She's left with £300 a year and Constance gets £100.
To reiterate, this kind of specificity about money, which we are told is a feature of Austen's novels, is easily to be found in many novels.
If we are talking about Austen's literary merits, I think she is without question the best writer of her era, and one of the best writers of any era. But when you say "Austen talks about money," I think it's only fair to ask, compared to whom?
Nevertheless, many modern critics claim that Austen's references to money have a special significance. Next post.
"Funnily enough," says John Mullan, "in our world, people are much more secretive about money than they were in Jane Austen's world, partly because of circumstances; marriage settlements made semi-public the amount money people were worth when they got married."
Genteel women had few opportunities to earn money and of course jobs like governess or school-teacher were poorly paid. Earning money was basically seen as degrading, not liberating. In the second book of my Mansfield series, A Marriage of Attachment, Fanny Price finds a job working for a charity that teaches fine sewing skills to poor girls on the outskirts of London. In A Different Kind of Woman, the third book in the series, we meet two other female characters who work; one in a bookstore and another as a piano teacher. Click here for more about my books.