To fully understand Jane Austen’s novels, it’s important to grasp the finer points about economics and what all of the numbers and denominations of money meant in real terms, then and today. A few of the denominations of British currency in Austen’s day have continued down to the present, notably the pound and pence or penny. But the ways in which they were divided two centuries ago were different.
The British Currency
The monetary system in the early 19th century wasn’t yet organized by tens and even one pound then was a lot of money. We can see this in the typical wages of the working class. A shilling was commonly talked of as a week’s wages.
The currency had 20 shillings to a pound. Each shilling was then further divided into 12 pence which meant that there were 240 pence to one pound. Today, pounds might seem a negligible amount to us but it’s important to recognize that, in the early 19th century, the salary of a domestic servant might be as little as five or 10 pounds a year.
A single-digit number of pounds was often the yearly salary of the majority of the English population then. Even among privileged people who could afford to be served, a pound wasn’t an insignificant amount of money. The middling classes, too, might measure every expenditure in pennies and shillings, rather than by pounds.
Guineas and the Price of Horses
However, for those of the greatest levels of wealth, the pound and the guinea were the more commonly spoken of units. A guinea, now a defunct form of currency, in Austen’s day was valued at 21 shillings. Thus, it amounted to one pound and one shilling, or just slightly more than a pound.
Guineas were used most often in describing, at first, the price of horses. That extra shilling between the pound and the guinea sometimes went to pay something like a commission for an auctioneer. Eventually, guineas came to be used more widely not just in horse sales but to describe the price of luxury goods.
We can see this in Jane Austen’s Emma, when Emma suggests the newly arrived Frank Churchill will make himself popular if he spends some money at a shop in the village of Highbury. Emma suggests that he buy gloves at half a guinea. Her suggestion, which Frank takes, might be compared to the current adage to ‘buy local’.
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When trying to understand British currency and its value, the important thing to remember is that Britain then was an industrializing economy. Consumer goods were becoming more likely to be mass produced, due to changes in labor and manufacturing.
In Austen’s day, this shift was still underway, and acquiring goods required a far higher percentage of one’s income than now. There were fewer goods, and it took far more to make them. Thus, for a person to have a change of clothing was a rarity. To own a book was unusual. Needless to say, to buy a new pair of gloves on a whim, as Frank does, was to flaunt incredible purchasing power.
Those gloves, or even one book, might cost the equivalent of one-tenth of a servant’s annual earnings.
The ‘Middling Classes’
When it comes to Austen’s fiction, it’s important to acknowledge that, apart from indicating their social status, she offers little direct insight into the lives of servants. They are rarely given lines of dialogue. An exception to this is Pemberley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds in Pride and Prejudice, a high-status and better-paid servant.
And yet, most of Austen’s characters are best classified, as Walter Scott famously put it, as belonging to the ‘middling classes’ of society. This designation of middling might surprise those readers who imagine Austen’s fiction as about rich people. The culprit, perhaps, are the recent Austen film and television adaptations. They mislead us into believing Austen’s novels are all about the most wealthy people in the population. They’re are set on lavish estates, with enormous numbers of servants.
In reality, most of Austen’s fictional characters could not buy as many pairs of gloves as they wanted.
Working Classes and the Two-percenters
In Austen’s day, the country was home to some 10 million people and approximately two million households. Most people belonged to what we’d call the laboring or working classes—largely an uneducated group.
It’s often estimated that half of the population was unable to read and write. There weren’t yet publicly funded schools or child labor laws. Six-day work weeks were the norm for most from a very young age.
On the other hand, one critic has estimated that just 40,000 English families out of that population of 10 million were worth more than 850 pounds a year. They were their culture’s two-percenters. They alone could own a large home, keep a carriage and horses, and hire a household full of servants.
Austen’s Description of Wealth and Poverty
To conclude, Austen’s fiction might strike the readers as almost obsessed with money. Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy has 10,000 pounds a year. Mansfield Park’s Mr. Rushworth considers hiring a landscape architect for five guineas a day. And Emma’s Miss Bates is said to be likely to give away sixpence of any shilling she had in the world. Austen’s novels, interestingly, provide such vivid, specific information about wealth and poverty, down to the guinea, pound, shilling, and penny.
Crucially then, as stated earlier, to understand Austen’s novels, it’s important not only to learn about courtship, love, and marriage, but also to grasp the finer points about its economics.
Common Questions about Class and Economics in Jane Austen’s Novels
A single-digit number of pounds was often the yearly salary of the majority of the English population then. Even among privileged people who could afford to be served, a pound wasn’t an insignificant amount of money.
When it comes to Jane Austen’s fiction, it’s important to acknowledge that, apart from indicating their social status, she offers little direct insight into the lives of servants. They are rarely given lines of dialogue.
In Jane Austen’s day, one critic has estimated that just 40,000 English families out of that population of 10 million were worth more than 850 pounds a year. They were their culture’s two-percenters.