So a reference to a character's having 286 pounds a year in the latest chapter of "A Change of Legacies" prompted a very good question about just how much that was, income-wise. The answer is, it depends on whom you're comparing it to.
In this very class-based time of British society, you have to remember that there were people for whom 20 pounds a year would have been a tremendous amount of money. Granted, some of the people we see in this layer of society in ACL and ACL2 are servants and seamen, and they have a place to stay and food to eat provided for them, taking away two of the major elements of basic subsistence.
But still, even the 50 pounds a year that Elizabeth would have had to live on eventually, had she not married, is not an amount that would have put her at risk of starving (regardless of what Mrs. Bennet says), but what it would have constituted was a fall from the gentry. With that income her only hope might have been to become a companion, as she is not skilled enough to be a governess, if she still wished to live among the gentry.
The Jane Austen Centre in Bath had a fantastic sign up that summarized better than anything else I've read just what various income levels meant, although I've read other accounts that put incomes even higher for the most substantial of the gentry -- one indicated that 10,000 pounds a year was the minimum required to support a town house in London.
But at any rate, this one is quite good. I typed it up to post on AHA awhile back and have resurrected it here.
"£100 a year
This is the lowest income that can support the price of a ticket to a circulating library. In this group you would find poor curates, clerks in government offices and moderately prosperous tradesmen. This income could supply a family with a young maid servant, at a very low wage.
£200 a year
Jane Austen's parents married in 1764 on a church living of only £100 a year, plus the use of 200 acres of land as a second source of income, which brought in another £100. £200 makes a claim to gentility, but only with the narrowest style of life. It supplies a better servant, though, at a higher salary.
£300 a year
This amount allowed a comfortable bachelor existence. The income brings two servants. Jane's brother James married on this sum, but found it insufficient to maintain a carriage for his bride and a pack of harriers (hunting dogs) for himself.
£400 a year
An income that approaches the comforts of genteel life. It usually brings a cook, a housemaid, and, perhaps, a boy. Fanny Price's mother had just this amount per year and kept two servants, but managed very badly. Isabella Thorpe is disappointed on learning that this amount is all she will have on her marriage to James Morland.
£500 a year
This sum, according to domestic economists, fills the cup of human happiness. It would allow for three servants, but no horses or carriage. The Austen family had just this much to live on during their years in Bath, however when Mr. Austen died in 1804 and his church pension was stopped they had considerably less. This forced a change to their domestic arrangements with a move to a smaller premises.
£700 to £1,000 a year
This higher range of upper professional incomes marks the most prosperous pseudo-gentry families. It's most significant consumer marker was the ownership of a carriage. Jane Austen's father took a carriage when his income reached £700, though he found it too expensive to maintain on that income. Mr. Perry, the local physician [sic] in Emma, lets his income be known in Highbury when his wife longs for a carriage.
£2,000 a year
At this level we have the landed gentry, however, domestic economy must till hold a tight rein, especially when, as with Mr. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, there were five daughters to marry off! Colonel Brandon's Delaford is described as "without debt or drawback."
Above £4,000 a year
Incomes of £4,000 a year and above (Darcy's, Bingley's, Crawford's, Rushworth's) leave behind the 'cheese-paring' cares of middle-class incomes, to enter a realm of unlimited genteel comforts. To spend more than this, according to contemporary wisdom, a man must go into horse-racing or illegitimate pleasures' (Landowning as a Business 1882). In terms of consumer show, this income is characterised by its ability to provide a house in London for the social season with all the expected social activities.
Many heiresses were worth a lump sum. Miss Bingley's £20,000 would be worth £1,000 a year, while Elizabeth Bennet's £1,000 would bring £50 a year.
With this formula for turning inherited money into yearly incomes, and investment around 5%, heiress's fortunes quickly come into focus as the bottom line for romance.
From: The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMastre."
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