Wealth and Position in Regency England

Since yesterday was the birthday of Pride and Prejudice I thought it was perfect timing to rerun this guest post. It was originally published on December 9, 2011.

Mr. Darcy as Good as a Lord

Today my good friend Nancy Kelley is here. Nancy is half of the dynamic duo running Indie Jane. Indie Jane is a new blog and community that celebrates and supports independent/non-traditionally published Austenesque literature.

I was honored to beta read Nancy’s first Austen sequel, His Good Opinion. While reading it, I kept wanting to know more about the time period. So she has agreed to delve a little into a little history. That makes my heart flip with joy.

Wealth and Position in Regency England

By Nancy Kelley

When Mrs. Bennet learns that Elizabeth has snared Mr. Darcy, her comment is, “Ten thousand a year! A house in the country! Why, tis good as a lord!” How true was that?

When the modern reader finds that Mr. Darcy has 10,000 a year, it means little to us. We can tell by the general reaction of the room that he is wealthy, but we have no gauge of how wealthy he is. Between inflation, the change in money due to the decimilazation of the pound in the seventies, and conversion rates, it’s hard to say exactly how much that would be today in dollars. However, Patricia Spacks, editor of Pride and Prejudice Annotated, estimates that Darcy’s 10,000 a year is an annual salary of one million dollars.

That is simply the revenue he makes each year, it is not a full accounting of his wealth. In pre-industrial times, wealth was measured by land ownership. We know Darcy owns Pemberley, “a large estate in Derbyshire,” which is apparently impressive enough to make Elizabeth, on seeing it the next summer, wonder if maybe she was a bit hasty in rejecting him. “She felt, for the first time, that to be mistress of Pemberley might really be something.”

But in Regency England, wealth was only half the picture. Family position mattered just as much. With the rising middle class, Society was desperate to keep out the nouveau riche—those who, like Bingley’s father, made their money in trade.

Darcy holds the ace here as well. Pemberley has clearly been in his family for generations. What is more, his grandfather was an earl. There is no sign from anyone that the family objected to Lady Anne marrying old Mr. Darcy, so one must assume the Darcys were well respected members of the Ton.

With his wealth, family background, and good looks (“handsome features, noble mein…”) Darcy would have been viewed as a prime catch by many a young lady and her mama. Indeed, when he first arrives in Meryton, half the families try to approach him before they realize how proud and disagreeable he is.

I have to wonder though if perhaps he did not cultivate that look of hauteur in order to keep the females at bay. “Disguise of every sort” was his abhorrence, and is there any worse disguise than pretending to be interested in someone simply because of their money and position? Viewed from this light, his manners, while certainly lacking, show a bit of self-preservation.

Let us look at Bingley for just a minute, for the contrast he offers. He too is quite rich—his income is estimated to be about four or five thousand a year, or the equivalent of a six figure salary. But does he have the family position Darcy does?

He comes into the neighborhood because he is leasing Netherfield Park, and that is our first hint. He does not own property. We learn later that his father always meant to purchase before he died, but never got around to it, and that Bingley’s friends suspect he will be content to lease as well, if he can find a place he likes.

Modern readers can tell there is a difference between the two men, but we don’t realize how much of a gap there is between them. Darcy owns land that has been handed down. Bingley is still renting. What is more, his father’s wealth, and thus his own, was earned by trade. Bingley is one of those same nouveau riche that Society usually looked down on.

Though it is never stated anywhere, it can easily be guessed that Bingley’s acceptance in Society is largely due to his friendship with Darcy. We’re not told how the two men met. There is enough difference in their ages that it is unlikely they were in university together. However it happened, Bingley’s easy manners appealed to Darcy, who has none of them himself. Darcy’s word carries enough weight with others that his good opinion of Bingley recommends him to others.

Mrs. Bennet’s exclamation may have been a slight exaggeration, as many of her statements are. However, if Darcy was not “as good as a lord,” he was certainly the next best thing.

You can connect with Nancy Kelley on Twitter @Nancy_Kelley

Or you can connect with Nancy on her blog: http://austenaspirations.blogspot.com/

About Haley Whitehall

Haley Whitehall lives in Washington State where she enjoys all four seasons and the surrounding wildlife. She writes historicals set in the 19th century U.S. When she is not researching or writing, she plays with her cats, watches the Western and History Channels, and goes antiquing. She is hoping to build a time machine so she can go in search of her prince charming. A good book, a cup of coffee, and a view of the mountains make her happy.
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One Comment

  1. That’s a great explanation and gives us some more background of the characters and how society would have perceived them. I still can’t decide though, if Colin Firth or Matthew Macfayden is my favorite Darcy. Decisions, decisions!

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