Jane Austen and Income

Jane Austen and Income

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.”

ts-cowsCows? 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?ts-chickens

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.

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14 Responses to Jane Austen and Income

  1. I take it as generally a given that people know the sort of wealth involved and are giving pretty accurate estimates. I think part of it is that people understand and are aware of inheritances, and of moneys that are then put “in the funds”–highly reliable purchased annuities.

  2. Very interesting, Summer, thanks for posting! Made me think of Linda Slothouber’s book, where she goes into detail on the income from Edward Knight’s estates. Before I read that, I think I thought that income was much more consistent year-to-year, but it’s really variable depending on a number of factors. So 10,000 a year probably rarely if ever hits that number on the nose!

    • I could see a bad or good harvest as well as fluctuations in prices making huge differences in income. This doesn’t even address such issues as to whether an improved road or canal would make it so the crop costs less to get to market.

      I was unfamiliar with Linda Slothouber’s book, but I’ve ordered it. It sounds like I will enjoy it.

  3. When I first married my ex-husband twenty years ago, I started going to the Presbyterian church his family had always attended, where I soon discovered that they had only recently stopped posting, on the narthex wall, reports of who tithed and who did not, and how much the tithers gave. I was stunned and horrified that a church would do that. Had that still been their practice, I would have quickly found another church to attend! My point with this story is that it’s possible that churches in England did the same, though the Presbyterians came out of Scotland, I think, and not England. Still, that theory has merit. Knowing as I do that the wealthy do not discuss money (hence Mr. Darcy’s disgust at his income being bandied about so readily), I think that the people of the era would certainly have had a general idea of someone’s wealth simply from the size of their estate. I certainly enjoy writing him as far wealthier than 10,000 pounds a year! 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us! 🙂

    • Your attitude toward the publicizing of tithing is why I chose the Gilbert and Sullivan quote. People don’t like that information to be public. If it was done in England, everyone would have known and since Darcy’s income was so much larger than most people’s, that information may have gone well beyond his parish.

      I wondered if it was publicized in England at the time. I was unaware of it being done so recently.

  4. From what I’ve read about Jane Austen’s own father, I understand that although he was a vicar himself, he also had livestock which would presumably have provided him with some additional income along with that earned by his pastoral duties and the teaching of the boys who lodged with them. Mr. Collins also kept pigs didn’t he? Pride and Prejudice gives the impression that escaped from their stys into the garden fairly regularly.

    As to knowing the income and origins of newcomers to a neighbourhood, I expect a lot of it WAS due to servant’s chatter. I imagine Darcy’s own staff would be fairly closed mouthed but Bingley, I assume, would have had to hire most of the Netherfield staff locally and whho knows what sort of gossip they would indulge in. Some of it may have been mere speculation, of course

    Thanks for such a fascinatiing insight ladies. I’m heading off to Amazon now to look out your Mary Younge book. Sounds intriguing.

    • The information about Jane Austen’s father’s is interesting. No matter how much we know about how much he earned from his livings, it is unlikely we can do more than guess about any other income.

  5. Actually, these are my thoughts, but Summer posted them. She does the computer stuff and forgot to sign in as Renata McMann.

    Maybe acreage and livestock would give an estimate. It certainly would give some information.

  6. Summer, Thank you for your thoughts. I have always wondered about that very thing. Was nothing sacred or was it just a case of guesstimating by counting acreage and livestock? 🙂 A book on Mary Younge? That sounds very interesting!

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