“A young man of large fortune.” That’s how Mrs. Bennet described Charles Bingley when she learned he had leased a neighboring estate in Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice.
As the mother of five unmarried daughters, Mrs. Bennet didn’t feel the need to know how Charles came into possession of such a fortune; her only concern was that he marry one of her daughters.
I, on the other hand, want to learn as much as I can about Charles Bingley’s background, because Charles makes an appearance in the JAFF story I’m currently writing. Piecing together Charles’ history (and that of his sisters) will give me insight into how—and why—he will take certain actions in my novel.
Jane Austen gives us some hints about Charles’ origins. The Bingley fortune had been “acquired by trade.” Charles himself had a fortune of £100,000, which gave him an annual income of about £4,000. (In today’s money that’s £186,100 or $241,930 U.S. dollars.)
The Bingleys were “respectable.” They came “from the north of England,” an area of the country where the manufacture of textiles was a booming business at the time the story was written.
Given those hints, it’s probable that Charles, Luisa, and Caroline Bingley’s father owned one of the textile mills that sprang up across the north during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. As children, they were most likely raised in a house that was either next door to, or very near, the mill their father owned.
In most mills of that era, the people who worked there were seen not as people, but as extensions of the machinery. They were given pitiful wages for 12 or 13 hour work days. They lived in unsanitary conditions and worked in unsafe environments. Poet William Blake described the mills of the 19th century as “satanic.”
But considering what we know about the Bingley siblings—particularly Charles, who was described as amiable, lively, unreserved, sensible, and good-humoured—it’s hard for me (looking through my 21st century lens) to imagine they were raised by a father capable of such draconian treatment of the people in his employ.
So I have to wonder . . .
What if, like Charles Bingley, the father had a disposition to be kind and friendly by nature?
What if, like Charles, the elder Mr. Bingley treated everyone respectfully, regardless of their rank or privilege?
And what if the elder Mr. Bingley was among a small group of enlightened mill owners? What if he treated his workers humanely and did what he could to set apart his mill from the dark, grim places we tend to associate with the Regency Era?
I can give you a real-life example of what I mean. In 1784 a man named Samuel Greg founded a mill not far from Manchester, England. He named it Quarry Bank Mill.
The great thing about Quarry Bank Mill is that it’s still in existence. Now owned by England’s National Trust, Quarry Bank Mill stands as a real-life working model of the kind of business I think Charles Bingley’s father would have run.
Originally powered by an enormous iron waterwheel, Quarry Bank Mill boasted five floors of cotton textile production. Those five floors were filled with hundreds of employees ginning and weaving cotton.
Each of those employees needed a place to live, so, adjacent to the mill, Greg built a village of row-houses and cottages for his workers.
Many of his workers were children—orphans from workhouses and children who previously lived on the streets. He called them “apprentices,” and he built a communal home to house them.
The children attended school and worked in the community garden, which provided fresh vegetables and fruit for their diets.
Greg also built churches for his workers and gave them Sundays off so they could attend services.
And when his workers fell ill or were injured, Greg ensured he had a doctor on hand for their care.
Samuel Greg created a community and a way of life for his workers that was superior to any that could be had by farm workers and other laborers of the lower-class. Many of the apprentices who grew up working in his mill stayed on to work at Quarry Bank as adults.
Mr. Greg operated his mill in a much more humane fashion than his competitors, and doing so earned him a handsome fortune. He built a respectable and well-appointed home next to the mill for his wife and children.
Since I first learned about Quarry Bank Mill, I’ve often wondered if Charles Bingley’s father earned his fortune in the same way. I wonder, too, if Charles and his sisters grew up in a fine house within a few yards of the workers’ cottages and mill works, just as Samuel Greg’s children did.
I think it’s possible that, coming into every-day contact with mill workers would explain how Charles learned to be gracious and respectful to everyone he met, regardless of their station in life.
And it would explain why his manner was relaxed and amiable, why he never uttered a critical word about anyone, and why his behavior at the Meryton Assembly earned everyone’s good opinion. As Jane Austen wrote:
There had been no formality, no stiffness; he had soon felt acquainted with all the room.
What do you think? Do you think it’s possible Charles Bingley’s kind disposition and good humor were traits he inherited from his father?
Had Charles elected to follow in his father’s footsteps, what kind of mill owner do you think he would have made?
Charles’ sisters Caroline and Luisa each inherited £20,000 from their father. Would you like to know how much that would be in today’s money?
Then, select a year: Try 1810, which is close to the year P&P was first published (1813).
Enter the amount: 20,000
Click on the “Show Purchasing Power” button, and you’ll see how much their inheritance was worth in today’s money.
For Americans, don’t forget to multiply the converted amount by 1.3—that’s today’s average rate of exchange rate for British Pound to U.S. Dollar.
You can use this tool to calculate all financial sums mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels—from the Dashwood’s £500 a year to Georgiana Darcy’s £30,000 marriage portion.