30th November 1814. The urge to marry well was strong.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a woman’. Opening lines of Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice.
Today in 1814 Jane wrote to her niece Fanny Knight: ‘that without writing she would be dependent on her family whose head was a far from rich parson existing on small tithes: while she appreciated the praise the novels were getting, she also like earning money too’.(1)
Jane in fact earned no more than £684 from the four novels published in her lifetime, not exactly a fortune. This is small beer to her Mr Darcy’s annual income of £10,000.(2)
The Austen’s lifestyle was comfortable, Jane’s mother was related to the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey, and one son became an admiral: farmworkers at the time earned £20 pa.
Jane’s father the Reverend George Austin had acquired ‘livings’ from his childless, wealthy, relative the Knights, who were to adopt George’s third son Edward aged 16, as heir, who would then have changed his name accordingly.(3)
When Edward inherited, his income was greater than the fictional Darcy’s, at £15,000 pa which he would need for the upkeep of the estates, carriage, servants and children; his wife had died after giving birth to their eleventh child.
Also he would be expected to help his relatives seen when Edward refurbished Chawton for his sisters Jane and Cassandra, his mother and friend, where they had moved after his father’s death.
Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, lives well on £5,000 interest from his inheritance of £100,000. The scatty Mrs Bennett comments on this: ‘A single man of large fortune…what a fine thing for our girls’.
The five Bennet girls thus saw that their prospects would be curtailed on the death of their father, due to the entail on the estate when Bennet’s cousin, the obsequious parson Mr Collins would inherit. In effect Mrs Bennet’s income would be reduced from £2,000 to £200.
Austen’s heroines, with the exception of Emma Woodhouse, who is handsome, clever and rich, all suffer money constraints and anxieties. The Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibiilty were reliant on their brother and miserly wife Fanny.
Jane Austen lived at Chawton before removing to Winchester for treatment for her final illness.
(1) The Reverend George Austen had an income of about £700 pa from livings acquired from the Knights. He also took in students.
(2) Today’s values would be about 50 times those in Austen’s day.
(3) The Rev. George Austen, by acquiring parishes would enjoy their tithes, whilst a curate would do most of the work. He died at Bath on 21st January 1805.
Ref: Huffingtonpost.com/’Bank of England choose Jane Austen to grace £10 note’.
Ref: Article in Daily Telegraph, Saturday August 3rd 2013. Bharat Tandon regarding Austen’s portrait which is to be on £10 note.