Regency Income: 500 versus 10,000 per year
Jane Austen always informs us about the financial status of her characters. It wasn't a taboo topic like it often is today. James Morland should have £400 a year, Wickham was paid £3,000 in lieu of the living, Miss Grey has £50,000 compared to the Dashwood girls’ £1,000 apiece. Yearly income and wealth—and the social positions they confer—help us understand a character’s motives. In An Affectionate Heart, the Darcys are renting a small cottage near Netherfield and appear to be living on only £500 a year. There is a significant difference between having an income of £500 versus canon Darcy’s £10,000 a year.
According to The Complete Servant, a couple with children with £500 a year could afford a cook, a housemaid, and a nursery maid, with a boy as a groom or to help in the house and garden. In An Affectionate Heart, Darcy and his sister begin the novel with a cook, a maid, and a man, (remember, men cost more to hire than women).
This isn’t enough of an income to afford a carriage or a horse, and certainly not a house in town or the means to travel regularly. It’s enough to rent a modest house and afford a daily newspaper. It’s not poor, but it would put a married gentleman and his family right on the edge of gentility.
Total household expenses for a man, his wife, three children, and two servants with £500 a year might be about £460 per year, leaving £40 pounds in reserve. This includes everything from food, rent, and medicine to taxes, education, candles, and soap. Good old Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice never saved anything from his yearly income.
According to The New System of Practical Economy, it cost about £42 a year to keep a horse, £65 for two horses. If your basic living expenses only leave you £40 for extras, emergencies, and savings, you’re not in a position to afford to keep a horse.
A good comparison to how the Darcys appear to be living in An Affectionate Heart is the Dashwood women. In Sense and Sensibility, each of the Dashwood daughters inherited £1,000 from their great uncle, and Mrs. Dashwood received £7,000 from her late husband. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters have a combined wealth of £10,000, which earns them £500 a year. They have to sell their horses and carriage, and downsize from Norland. They are able to rent a furnished Barton Cottage, meet their basic needs, and keep three servants (and one of them a man!).They are not wealthy, but they appear to be at least comfortable.
The same budgeting book mentioned above says that on £5,000 a year—around what canon Bingley earns off of his investments—a family could afford eleven female servants and thirteen male servants: A housekeeper, cook, lady’s maid, nurse, two housemaids, laundry maid, still room maid, nursery maid, kitchen maid, scullery maid, along with a butler, valet, house steward, coachman, two grooms, an assistant groom, two footmen, three gardeners, and a laborer. Imagine how many servants must be running around Pemberley.
At this income range, you enter the realm of being able to have any genteel comfort you could imagine. You want to rent a post chaise and take a house at the seaside? Done. Want to take a house in town for the season? Sure. Need a new pianoforte? Go pick one out. Certainly if Darcy was living on £10,000 rather than £500, he could afford a house in town, several horses and carriages, and show as much charity as he wants.
Here’s an excerpt from An Affectionate Heart that takes place after Elizabeth learns that Darcy has an invalid sister. It gives a hint as to what the Darcys living situation is like.
The servant then entered, holding a small parcel. “This was sent from Longbourn, sir.”
Darcy sighed. He had a mostly-steady cook, a giddy young housemaid, and a middle-aged man for everything else; and none of them competent. “There are many people in the village of Longbourn, Hannah. Who amongst them has sent me something I do not want?”
“Not the village; Longbourn House.” She announced this as though he were simple. “For Miss Darcy, with Miss Bennet’s compliments.” She deposited the parcel with a thud and left.
The siblings exchanged a curious look before Georgiana opened the paper. A note addressed to Miss Darcy was atop, and Darcy handed it to her as he scrutinized the contents. La Belle Assemblée vol II; a libretto for Die Zauberflöte; and last year’s sensational novel Self-Control.
“Did you not try to get this novel in vain last year?” Darcy asked. She nodded, and then looked back at her note while he flipped through the book. “How does a girl born in the Scottish highlands end up on a passage down an American river? This melodramatic novel has nothing of probability in it.”
“I think that is what makes it enjoyable. Will you will read it to me in the evenings?”
He nodded. Better that than the ladies’ magazine. “Why has Miss Bennet sent hundreds of pages for your amusement?”
“She writes that she is recently returned from town and had only just learnt from you that I am an invalid and suggests the possibility that I might be weary with only you for company, and she hopes these offerings will fill my empty hours.”
“It is impertinent that she addresses herself to you without an introduction.”
“She could not have written to you; and she wished to show me a kindness.” Georgiana laughed, and it devolved into a cough. When she recovered, she said, “She gently implies that perhaps your situation does not allow you to indulge me as much as I deserve, and she wishes to share all that she has to offer with one who would likewise appreciate the position of a dependent sister.”
“She does not know you and she is not a patroness of a village.” Charity, and from a woman with no status and from such a family! Perhaps she did this to remind him to keep his promise not to mention her ailment. As though her heart could be a concern of mine. “We are respectable gentry here. You have no need of Miss Bennet’s charity.”
“Fitzwilliam, she does not know that. We are renting a lodge that a family with more than five hundred pounds a year would never rent. You do not keep a carriage, and everyone knows you keep only three servants.”
Who was he in this place? He had a horse, a few servants, and rented a cottage just large enough to boast a guest room. They projected a gentleman’s status, but it was a precarious prosperity that no unmarried gentleman’s daughter would set her cap on. I will not be pursued for my fortune here, small comfort that it is.
Are you surprised by how much income and inheritances and dowries are discussed in Austen's works? What do you think about Darcy’s attitude and his living situation? A better question might be, why are the Darcy’s in An Affectionate Heart living on such a small income?
A NEW SYSTEM OF PRACTICAL DOMESTIC ECONOMY 1823
THE COMPLETE SERVANT BEING A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO THE PECULIAR DUTIES AND BUSINESS OF ALL DESCRIPTIONS OF SERVANTS