Getting going on P&P (I feel justified in referring to it by the acronym; Austen herself did it in her letters to her sister). Of course, money plays a huge role in this book; P&P and S&S are the most specific of the books about giving actual figures for how much people have, or what they need to live on.
But what did £500 actually mean? What’s Mr Bingley’s five thousand a year, or Darcy’s ten thousand, actually worth? We know it’s a lot, but just how big a lot?
So I found this really useful calculator: Historical UK Inflation and Price Conversion.
According to that, £10,000 (Darcy’s yearly income) in 1813 was about £590,000 in 2012 money. For North Americans, the £ is currently worth about $1.50 (Canadian or US$, doesn’t matter), so this comes to roughly $900,000. Let’s just round it, shall we, so we can say Darcy makes $1,000,000 a year. A million bucks! He’s not just a millionaire, he’s probably more in the neighbourhood of a billionaire – the million is his income, not the capital. And Bingley, at half a million a year, isn’t doing so shabbily either.
No wonder Mrs Bennet is drooling over them.
So the ballpark figure you can work with is that to convert Austen money into dollars, multiply it by a factor of 100. Which means that the Dashwood ladies’ £500/year makes about $50,000; Elizabeth Bennet’s inheritance of £1000 about $100,000 (which she would have to live on for the rest of her life), and the cash Mrs Ferrars hands John and Fanny Dashwood for spending money in London is $20,000 – you know, just to buy the odd trinket. And this to the man who couldn’t afford to give his stepmother and half-sisters an annuity of £100/year, because it would deprive his poor little son of too much of his inheritance.
The Dashwood ladies’ housekeeping is quite interesting in that regard. Their £500/$50,000 pays for rent on the cottage (which they have on “very reasonable terms”, but what exactly those are Austen doesn’t tell us), for food, the wages and keep of two servants, and that’s about it. No horses or carriages. So they can afford housing and groceries, but no car. It really makes me wonder what the servants earned per year. My guess is probably something in the neighbourhood of £1/week, and less for women than for men.
And then there’s that interesting discussion between Elinor and Marianne of the value of money for happiness:
“What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?”
“Grandeur has but little,” said Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.”
“Elinor, for shame!” said Marianne, “money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.”
“Perhaps,” said Elinor, smiling, “we may come to the same point. YOUR competence and MY wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?”
“About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than THAT.”
Elinor laughed. “TWO thousand a year! ONE is my wealth! I guessed how it would end.”
(from S&S on Project Gutenberg)
Quite. $200,000? I wouldn’t mind a “competence” like that, myself.