I know everybody’s income and what everybody earns;
And I carefully compare it with the income-tax returns;
– Princess Ida, Gilbert and Sullivan
How did people know Darcy’s income at the assembly in the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? The two logical possibilities are that someone attending the assembly knew about him or that Darcy’s or Bingley’s servants talked. There is also Wickham’s information. Although taking Wickham’s word is dangerous, he came up with the same figure.
From a modern point of view, this is extraordinary. I’ve known people for years and had no idea of how much money they make or have. Even at work, where information is available about the maximum and minimum salaries for the people in my department, I don’t have any idea what a person’s spouse makes or if they’ve inherited money or have a second job, much less whether they spend every penny or have saved a great deal.
How did the people at the assembly know, then?
Part of it might have been the tithing system. Possibly the amount paid was known, and thus became public knowledge, but a person’s income and the income from their estate are not the same thing. On one hand, a few things can make an estate worth less. Their might be legally required annuities, for example. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. John Dashwood complained about them. Additionally, much of the income might be required simply to run the estate and pay the workers.
There are also many things that could make an estate worth more. When Elinor and Edward married at the end of Sense and Sensibility, “[t]hey had in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows.”
Cows? Was Edward a farmer or a clergyman? Apparently both. Plural implies two cows, and they may have had more. Two cows would probably have provided all the milk the two of them would need with enough left over for their servants. Possibly there would be enough to sell. If they had cows, they probably had a vegetable garden. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Collins kept chickens and Mr. Collins gardened. Certainly that would give them a substantial amount of food.
Pemberley may have brought in £10,000 in rent, but it presumably had some farmland attached to it. At Pemberley and Longbourn, it is likely that almost all of the food the servants ate and most of the food the family ate was grown there. Mrs. Bennet talks about someone buying ducks, but this was for Netherfield Park, which may not have had access to a farm connected to the property. Mr. Bennet shot birds on his estate and Mr. Darcy fished on his. Although these occupations were considered sport, they did bring in food. Food costs were a much higher percent of peoples’ income then than they are now. Whether they ate the food they grew or sold it, it effectively added to their income. In addition, records weren’t available like they are today. If Mr. Bennet sold wheat to the miller or a lamb to a butcher, who would know?
Although farming estates provided much, the income from the estate was only a part of what a person might have. Jane Austen made it clear that 5% interest was expected. This might have only been available in multiples of a thousand pounds, but for someone like Mr. Darcy, that would not be a problem. Investing in stock, with the advantage of limited liability, wasn’t possible until the mid-nineteenth century, but to someone of Darcy’s wealth, there were other possibilities. Darcy’s income could easily be much more than the £10,000 he received from Pemberley.
Frankly, it is impossible to know what the actual income was, but Jane Austen was well aware that information about income was not necessarily reliable. General Tilney in Northanger Abbey was twice fooled about the wealth of Catherine Morland’s family. Perhaps, the best we can do as far as an interpretation goes, is to consider the incomes given to be minimums.
Speaking of finances, we’d like to announce that our book, Mary Younge, will be free on Amazon from October 27, 2016 to October 31, 2016.
We hope you read it and enjoy!