Mr. Darcy has 10,000 a year - how does everyone know this?
September 1, 2010 4:01 PM   Subscribe

How did all those Jane Austen and Charles Dickens characters know how much everyone else made?

They all keep going on about how much or how little everyone they know is raking in every year, and with great precision and certainty. A few of the more public office holders I could understand, but it seems to go all across the board, from the truly rich like Darcy to the modest country parish vicar.

Does it reflect reality at the time? And did they discuss it so freely at the time?

NB I am not interested in where the money came from so much as in how its various totals became common knowledge. If indeed it did.
posted by IndigoJones to Work & Money (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I always assumed it was a product of the gossip of the era. If you nothing to do, you would sit around and talk. All it would talk is one person knowing and sharing the info, and then the whole network of friends and acquaintances would know.
posted by arcolz at 4:11 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dickens has a money thing, perhaps because his father went to debtors prison.
posted by angrycat at 4:17 PM on September 1, 2010

So much of what is automated or considered personal today was done by "the help" in the 19th century. From butler to scullery maid, the help would have access to you and your secrets. Of course they were supposed to be discreet, but hey . . . who doesn't like a nice piping hot dish on a chilly night?

The village gossips could make pretty quick calculations from what they heard from the help, the local banker, the barman, etc. Also, people tended to stay in one town or county and once everyone heard that you were flush from your banker or broke from your tailor, it would be pretty hard to escape the reputation.
posted by annaramma at 4:26 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Landowning gentry received money primarily from tenant farmers:

" 1873 local government boards had examined and cross-checked over five million valuation-list and poor-rate assessments from the 15,000 parishes of Great Britain and Ireland outside of metropolitan London. Two years later alphabetical lists of landowners, their addresses, their acreages, and the rental values of their real estate (excluding mineral and forest rights) appeared for each county in Parliamentary Papers .... Country newspapers reproduced local sections of the return to fuel gossip."

From 'Who Owned Victorian England? The Debate over Landed Wealth and Inequality', Agricultural History 61(4), 1987, pp. 28-29.
posted by Paragon at 4:32 PM on September 1, 2010 [11 favorites]

I don't think it was much of a secret because I believe annual income came from tenant rent for landed gentry like Darcy. And vicarages had a "living," an annual amount which was fixed and, I think, published.
posted by bearwife at 4:33 PM on September 1, 2010

My thought is that it was a combination of certain things being a matter of public record (and therefore knowledge) and well developed abilities of extrapolation. Depending upon the source of the wealth, its size would probably have been made public in different ways. To take Pride and Prejudice, it is mentioned that Darcy's money comes from his land, so sources of information could be his employees, like his agent or someone related to such (like Wickham), or his tenants. His sister's wealth is an inheritance, most likely a lump sum, which would have been laid out in his father's will, and therefore public record. Bingley's money is the same. Servants could either provide the information directly (amongst themselves, and then transmitting the knowledge to their employers) or indirectly, as certain levels of income could support certain numbers, and types, of servants, though this could be faked to some extent or skewed by personal preference. Tradespeople would also have a motivation to seek out information and determine who was a good risk for extending credit, and who needed to pay up front.
posted by grar at 4:33 PM on September 1, 2010

Bearwife brings up another point, in terms of livings. Other authors such as Trollope and Eliot make explicit mention of the amount of money paid for certain positions being openly discussed and debated.

- In Middlemarch, the chaplaincy of the hospital, with its accompanying 40 pounds a year, is a desirable secondary source of income for two vying reverends. Incoming Dr. Lydgate has purchased and taken over a previous doctor's practice, with the result that people in town have a good idea of how much he has coming in (despite his questionable decision of presiding at the hospital for free), at least before he begins taking on new wealthy patients.
- In the Barchester Chronicles, the income amounts of every position from the wardenship (a major plot point of the first novel, as it is hotly debated starting with an outraged newspaper article, no less, as being an excessive one) to a tiny curacy are common knowledge.

If these sorts of discussions are as accurate to reality as their prevalence in writing about middle-class people of the time seems to suggest, then yes, people were definitely much more free about how they talked of money during this time period.
posted by grar at 4:44 PM on September 1, 2010

If these sorts of discussions are as accurate to reality as their prevalence in writing about middle-class people of the time seems to suggest, then yes, people were definitely much more free about how they talked of money during this time period.

This is really interesting; I wonder when talking about money became not so cool.
posted by angrycat at 5:01 PM on September 1, 2010

With Austen, I think the gossip angle is quite obvious. The only reason the reader ever hears about it is because the omniscient narrator tells us, or because various unemployed people, generally women, talk about it to one another (if it's brought up amongst men with positions of responsibility they tend to be very matter-of-fact about it or find the topic embarrassing or inappropriate.) If you pay attention to the phrasing, also, there's a lot of "at leasts" and "not more thans" used (and sometimes a guess is corrected or clarified later on, after flat-out asking the individual in question.)

It took me longer to hunt down my copy of "Emma" (I just moved, my books are in total disarray) than to find on its pages the first instance (page 9 in my copy) of the narrator advising us of someone's financial status. Excluding the first paragraph, where we learn that Emma is "rich." Up to that point, most of the book was the narrator or Emma talking about other people, and Mr. Knightley trying to get her to stop acting like a silly little gossipy busybody.

It doesn't help that all of Austen's books are about a very narrow class of people who were pretty freaking obsessed with money and its impact on their status. There are no truly poor people (the poor family a young woman must be rescued from living with still have multiple servants) and there are no people to whom money truly means nothing: the ones with property aren't living in luxury, generally no one is an heir to anything that's not at risk, etc. The characters are all thinking about money and family background - especially the ones who are looking to get married, or looking to have a daughter or friend married - and they talk about what they think about. All the time.

It doesn't take much imagination to suspect that that's what happened around Austen all the time, too - and that those men who frown upon such talk, and a wide assortment of other silliness, bear a strong resemblance to, e.g., her brother. It's entirely possible (I think quite likely) that the only people in these (very small) communities who knew or cared about other people's income, in such detail, were in this narrow class of people (whose daughters and wives all formed the core of the social information-transfer business.) Sort of like how waitresses all want to know how everyone else's tips are tonight, and everyone pretty much knows, even if no one has a spreadsheet lying around. They all know who is related to who - that's the first thing they wonder about, even before the money thing, when someone shows up.

I haven't read Dickens enough to say for sure, but I know enough about him to think that it's his issues, too - most of the 19th century authors are pretty straightforward with this sort of influence. Mary Shelley was fascinated by an autopsy, Tolstoy was an obsessed moralist, Dostoevsky was crazy, Mark Twain was an ornery guy who spent a lot of time on a river. This is like asking how come every third person in War and Peace has a detailed opinion on international politics, or why the villagers all knew what Dr. Frankenstein was up to.

Oh, and:
a) A pound was a lot more money back then. Think of "1,500" as "$150,000."
b) Most of these numbers (for the girls in Jane Austen's novels) are total inheritances. That's what they've got, full stop; they can't be going out to work to get more, not ever.

If you knew the exact value of what you owned and would ever own no matter what else happened, that one number would mean a lot. If that number meant the difference between being eligible to marry or not, and meanwhile there are exactly fifteen people with whom you can ever have a conversation more intimate than "nice to see you"... yeah.
posted by SMPA at 5:02 PM on September 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay.

Still, I'd have thought there were plenty whose income sources would be a little more obscure and uncertain. Doctors and lawyers, say. And the sugar trade people, whose income surely varied considerably. To say nothing of those times when the tenants didn't pay. Outside the purview of the question, I suppose. (And how common are the stories of those who've exploited tradesmen on credit - Beau Brummell comes to mind, after he lost his inheritance.)

I suppose discretion and tact came along with the tax man.

Still, this seems to cover it by and large. Many thanks to all.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:11 PM on September 1, 2010

Annual income was a status indicator for both the person themselves and for their servants. Someone worth ten thousand a year had higher social status than someone with five thousand, and less than someone with thirty thousand.
At any social gathering, the servants accompanying each party would be sure to establish their pecking order based on the relative wealth of their masters, probably by bandying about these numbers as a starting point (then of course you have birth, title, and the location of property). From the general servants to the personal servants would be fast, and then the personal servants (ladies maids, valets etc.) would supply the gossip to their masters while dressing them et al.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:22 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

From SMPA: all of Austen's books are about a very narrow class of people who were pretty freaking obsessed with money and its impact on their status.

posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:28 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster:
With Austen, I think the gossip angle is quite obvious.

Yes, of course, and likewise the narrowness of our subject population and the urgency to know - it's the source of the figures that I was seeking. Just wondering if there was anything beyond mere gossip. I don't recall off hand any instances of gossip getting it wildly wrong, save when a well appointed person loses it all at cards or the stock market. I'd have thought that ripe fodder for a novelist. Perhaps they did. I suppose I shall have to re-read them. Which means getting them out of storage boxes.

It occurs to me as well that some of the eligible young men might not want to publicize the size of their sinecure, if indeed they are possessed of a good fortune and in want of a wife. Forty pounds PA for God bothering, step right up, ladies.

Which suggests another question - did it figure at all in America at that time? I've read of vicars with stated incomes, but they were basically on the city payroll (that church state thing was mostly non-interference with conscience, not prohibition to spend local tax money on the rev. They earned pin money by teaching the children how to read and cipher.) I suppose the entire structure didn't really work that way, but whatever, I can't recall that kind of talk in any early American literature. Anyone?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:40 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: ...the eligible young men might not want to publicize...

Scratch that not. It made sense in draft one.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:42 PM on September 1, 2010

Wills were public documents in Britain, so it wasn't all that hard to figure out how much a man might have a year--most of the aristocracy and gentry lived off the interest as well as land rents, timber sales, etc. Being in trade put you in a lower class, and laborers lower still. Being a member of the clergy, as well as an Army or Naval officer would make your income public.

American men had more chances to make money--through trading, shipping, planting, owning a mill--and being a businessman didn't mean a man was of a lower order.

In Little Women, money and the lack of it are discussed pretty openly among the March girls. And of course, Edith Wharton focused on money and status as did O. Henry. They're both much later writers, though.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:54 PM on September 1, 2010

I would also like to point out that in a number of novels, Trollope's in particular, the gossipers are wrong about somebody's income.
posted by JanetLand at 7:50 PM on September 1, 2010

generally women, talk about it to one another (if it's brought up amongst men with positions of responsibility they tend to be very matter-of-fact about it or find the topic embarrassing or inappropriate.)

As an aside: There are no conversations between men, with no women present, in any of Jane Austen's novels. (I'm pretty sure this is true, but please correct me with examples if I missed one)

To address the actual question: I've not read Dickens so I can't say anything about his books. With Austen however, are the amounts really that exact? I mean, they usually round to an even number, right? I remember a few "at least" type comments. Of course you would consider that it varies from year to year depending on harvest and tenants, etc, but you would average it (or exaggerate it) when gossiping, wouldn't you?
posted by purpletangerine at 7:56 PM on September 1, 2010

Emily Post, 1922, intended for an American audience:


Usually, however, when the young man enters the study or office of her father, the latter has a perfectly good idea of what he has come to say and, having allowed his attentions, is probably willing to accept his daughter’s choice; and the former after announcing that the daughter has accepted him, goes into details as to his financial standing and prospects. If the finances are not sufficiently stable, the father may tell him to wait for a certain length of time before considering himself engaged, or if they are satisfactory to him, he makes no objection to an immediate announcement." (emphasis mine)

Personal finances were a much more public sort of discussion in the 1800s and early 1900s than they are today.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:03 PM on September 1, 2010

Attitude to money may not have changed quite as much as is being assumed - my experience has been that Americans see finances as a strangely private thing, but this is not necessarily normal.

Knowledge is power and generally it benefits employers when employees don't know how much each other makes, and it generally benefits employees when they do know who is making what.

I find people with a union background are much less likely to dis-empower themselves by keeping their incomes secret from each other. Perhaps the fall of unions over the last few decades is a factor in the culture of a secrecy that general works against one's own interests?
posted by -harlequin- at 9:14 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The established class in Austen's time had a very circumscribed list of possible investments and therefore only a few sources of income. It was basically rent, perhaps the sale of agricultural produce, and "the funds" - i.e., government bonds. Some characters - officers, clergy, lawyers and so forth - relied on income other than their investments, but you can see that they were occupying a lower social stratum. And people who relied on trade or speculation - well, they were simply on another level altogether.

So if you knew how much capital someone of the upper classes possessed you pretty much knew how much income they received, because rent, agricultural prices, and government dividends were all known quantities. I suppose you couldn't always tell how many properties someone had (although someone seeking marriage would take care to advertise his eligibility) but in our case we're talking about characters in a story, so the narrator assumes that we do actually know what properties Mr Darcy, for example, had inherited.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:38 PM on September 1, 2010

For agricultural landowners, the situation isn't all that different today. Farmers know how much land their neighbors own, they know how good that land is, they usually have an excellent idea of how well it's been improved and tended, they know what's growing on it, and they're often producing the same crops as those neighbors. That adds up to a pretty precise idea of what the bloke next door is making in any given year.
posted by Ahab at 12:44 AM on September 2, 2010

If your wealth wasn't available as public record in the ways stated above it was strongly in your interest for it to become known through your circle of acquaintance. There would likely be an explicit discussion of funds before marriage was agreed (between family lawyers at least) as lump sums might be made over from woman to man or specifics about entailment of property and income might well have to be settled. Trollope is very good on this, particularly in the Palliser novels. 'The Prime Minister', for instance centres on a marriage where due diligence was not conducted and the husband turns out to be impecunious.
posted by zemblamatic at 1:37 AM on September 2, 2010

If your wealth wasn't available as public record in the ways stated above it was strongly in your interest for it to become known through your circle of acquaintance.

And similarly, if you were a woman and you KNEW that a) what your future husband had was ALL your "earnings" - your husband was your career, so to speak - AND that everything was his - you could not own property or make financial transactions on your own, and b) if the worst were to happen there would be precious few ways that you could help out financially (writing books, which is what Mary Shelley did, begging your male relatives for help, sell your jewelry, that's about all a married woman above a certain class level could do) - if you were a woman in that position, of course you'd be intensely interested in the most fiddly details of how a man got his living. Because, again, marriage was your living.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:54 AM on September 2, 2010

This is really interesting; I wonder when talking about money became not so cool. (angrycat)

I wonder that, too. Could it be that earning money is now seen as something based on merit, rather than accident of birth? In other words, we think it is our own fault that we don't make more money, because we technically could go into a more lucrative field, whereas there was less ability to be "self made" in Austen's time. Nowadays, it seems like nearly all of us are self made to a greater or lesser degree (maybe your parents had connections or maybe not), but very few of us get an automatic living based on who our families are. So if all the people around me are self made, it must be based on merit, not birth, and a low income seems like a personal failing.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:10 AM on September 2, 2010

Attitudes towards money vary across and within time periods, almost as much as attitudes towards eating and sex, and usually in conjunction with the maturity and status of those involved. I really, really think that broad assumptions about how people think about money in the entire industrialized world in 2010 cannot be meaningfully compared to other eras on the basis of, e.g., evidence from upper-class rural English young women in 1810.

I bet if you got ten late-teenage girls, from families making between $350,000 and $1,000,000 annually, who have known each other their whole lives and never traveled into any city with more than 35,000 people in it, who live in any English-speaking country, into a Big Brother-esque situation, they would be just as free discussing their inheritance prospects, their allowances, and how much their parents and friends' parents make, as any Austenian girl. Maybe moreso. I suspect the only difference over time is how much it matters to their actual futures and how crude they are about conducting the conversation.
posted by SMPA at 1:23 PM on September 2, 2010

(And lots of income stuff is a matter of public record - mine is, for one, and I'm nobody - and some people are subject to a good deal of gossip on the subject. That is a separate issue from what makes for polite dinner-table conversation amongst well-mannered adults.)
posted by SMPA at 1:26 PM on September 2, 2010

Response by poster: Well done, Eyebrows!

Chatting with another on the topic and this one noted that in America, Aunt Penniman told Morris the Fortune Hunter how much Catherine would inherit in Washington Square. (Of course, not if she married him, so he dumps her. Such a relief.)

SMPA - I expect you're right on the girls of today, though these days those families could easily lose it in a day. There's a lot of fast money in that income stratum, and it can disappear in a heart beat. Moreover, the parents at least would probably have the genteel hypocrisy to say that such talk is not nice - am attitude which doesn't seem to have been in place in 1810. Thus the next question, why is it considered not nice?

Could it be that earning money is now seen as something based on merit, rather than accident of birth?

Back in the eighties Mike Royko noted that his drinking buddies didn't begrudge the big money types in finance because they knew that those guys were putting in really stupid work hours in exchange for the yearly bonus, and who needed that kind of aggravation? Well, that was his take. As to merit, the dot com boom saw a whole lot of folks making money just by being in the right place rather than being particularly meritorious. At the high end, had Mark Cuban taken his bar-tending experience and gone into the restaurant business, chances are you would never have heard of him. Had Meg Whitman turned down the chance to work at the starting up ebay as too screwy, chances are she too would be a relative unknown. There are plenty of smaller fry in that same pond. Right place at right time.

Mostly I think it's just that there's an tacit agreement that that kind of knowledge is just too annoying to have. Bad enough that Flanders has a better cross country vehicle, do we really want to know what his 1040 says? That way lies only depression. (Unless of course he is credit carded out to the max and we aren't.)

Of course, in countries where taxes are more of a sport than a legal obligation, the distinctions become even more interesting. Dinner for Schmucks (haven't seen it, heard it was terrible) is based on the extremely good French movie The Dinner Game, one point of which is that the Bad Guy must not allow the tax man to see the inside of his apartment lest it betray "exterior signs of wealth", which would bring down a serious audit which he could in no way pass.

Interesting question, though. Something for a desperate academic.

(If I haven't favorited anyone, it is only because you know who you are, and there are plenty of you. Many thanks again to all.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:44 PM on September 2, 2010

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