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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2252842-Money-matters-in-Jane-Austens-novels
by jaya
Rated: E · Essay · Women's · #2252842
There's something called non-financial assets.
Money matters in Jane Austen’s life and writings


Jane Austen’s novels cannot be read in vacuum. A study of her background is mandatory for a better understanding of her novels.

Besides music, books, education, I find, financial matters play a role in her fiction. She was realistic in her fictional creations because her observations were right out of the world she lived in.

Jane Austen grew up in a large family. Her father was a clergyman. He supported it with his church stipend and by taking in pupils and provided boarding to them. In addition, he did a bit of farming. He also had a small property. Jane’s mother brought a dowry of a thousand pounds from her “future inheritance”. Her sister, Cassandra had a thousand-pound inheritance, when her fiance died. Jane’s brothers supported themselves variously. Jane alone in the family had no independent income till her novels were published at a much later date.

Jane’s family was thrown into a state of uncertainty, when her father, George Austen died with no savings at all. He spent his money on luxuries like maintaining a coach, which was known to be expensive.

If we take a look at Henry Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility” and Mr. Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” we can see the similarities between them, and George Austen. They lived up to their income and left nothing for the family to fall back upon in times of need.
After John Austen’s death, unable to meet the expenses in Bath, the Austens moved to Southampton first, and then to the small village of Chawton. In Chawton, Edward, one of Jane Austen’s brothers had inherited the “great house” a few years earlier, and moved his mother and sisters into a cottage owned by the estate which was rent-free.

Jane Austen’s own earnings weren’t much. She received payment for her writing – but this was a fairly modest amount and came late in her life. She earned a little over 680 pounds during her life time. The losses on the second edition of “Mansfield Part” were enormous and “Emma” was not a great grosser either.

Austen was scrupulously careful with her money. Her accounts for 1807 are detailed down to the last half penny. There were frequent concerns in her letters over the amount she should use to tip servants or pay alms, the costs of postage and even the financial implications of a friend borrowing two sheets of writing paper. This speaks of someone anxious to make ends meet on a limited budget.

Her end-of-year accounts for 1807 include what must have been a life-saving legacy of £50 from a Mrs. Lillington. Beneath that was an extract of a letter from Austen to her sister Cassandra, written whilst Jane was in London correcting the proofs of Sense and Sensibility. Although the letter strikes a jaunty tone, the search for good value for money and the need to ensure that every penny counted comes through strongly.

Extract: letter from Austen to her sister Cassandra (18th April, 1811)

“I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant, and spending all my money, and, what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too; for in a linen-draper’s shop to which I went for checked muslin, and for which I was obliged to give seven shillings a yard, I was tempted by a pretty-colored muslin, and bought ten yards of it on the chance of your liking it; but at the same time, if it should not suit you, you must not think yourself at all obliged to take it; it is only 3s. 6d. per yard, and I should not in the least mind keeping the whole. In texture it is just what we prefer, but its resemblance to green crewels, I must own, is not great, for the pattern is a small red spot. And now I believe I have done all my commissions except Wedgwood.

I liked my walk very much; it was shorter than I had expected, and the weather was delightful. We set off immediately after breakfast, and must have reached Grafton House by half-past eleven; but when we entered the shop the whole counter was thronged, and we waited full half an hour before we could be attended to. When we were served, however, I was very well satisfied with my purchases,—my bugle trimming at 2s. 4d. and three pair silk stockings for a little less than 12s. a pair…

…Miss Burton has made me a very pretty little bonnet, and now nothing can satisfy me but I must have a straw hat, of the riding-hat shape, like Mrs. Tilson’s; and a young woman in this neighborhood is actually making me one… Our pelisses are 17s. each; she charges only 8s. for the making, but the buttons seem expensive,—are expensive, I might have said, for the fact is plain enough.” - (source Project Gutenberg, letters of Jane Austen)

Austen’s annual accounts and her letter indicate that she prioritized being smartly dressed.
She attended parties and dances at many of the local grand houses. She liked to be "smartly dressed." Judging by the way she shopped and looked at the dresses with an unerring eye regarding style, price and appropriateness, she simply loved to dress well.

Impression and outward appearances matter because they contribute to improve women's self-confidence. I don't think it changed much over centuries. The difference is just that some women know by instinct and aesthetic attitude, which clothes suit them better, be it from a thrift store or a famous boutique.

Coming back to her fictional creations we notice that it was a curious fact of the eighteenth and the turn of nineteenth century England that money was not a synonym for class. It was also interesting to note that those who earned their money and those who inherited it, was a staple theme of the English novel since the eighteenth century. One’s worth or “capital” was measured in a number of different ways like, financial, social, personal and even physical.

Let us see how Jane Austen applied this to “Pride and Prejudice.”

In the novel, Elizabeth Bennett’s sole financial expectation was a forty- pound share in her mother’s two thousand pounds fortune. She had every justification, when she says to Lady Catherine de Borough,

“He (Darcy) is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

The above statement, which to some might sound rather audacious or even radical, attains significance if we are aware of the less tangible equalities between Darcy and Elizabeth such as intellect and recognition of shared values. In the fictional worlds of Jane Austen, one’s financial value was just one way of measuring one’s worth particularly with regard to women characters.

Money is important in Jane Austen's novels. She shows how her characters struggle to earn and live by the society's standards. It not only shows the class to which they belong, the money factor contributes to make the plots progress and adds drama to it like the inheritance crisis of Mr. Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice”. We can see its vital role in persuading Wickham to run away with Miss. Georgiana Darcy because she gets a marriage portion of 30, 000 pounds. By the same measure, he was not ready to marry Lydia unless he gets certain amount from the family. Darcy's magnanimity is praiseworthy if we calculate the amount he paid to Wickham. Elizabeth is naturally grateful for his largess.

Jane Austen's characters' attitude to money is a measure of their goodness. Women need to marry, for a secure future, with their parents seeking the richest match possible. For example, in “Pride and Prejudice”, Mrs. Bennet is primarily concerned with marrying her daughters off to rich husbands, showing a distasteful interest in wealth as a status symbol, signifying her shallow and vain nature; on the contrary, Elizabeth and Jane Bennett wish for long-lasting happy marriages to men worthy of their love, showing sincerity and good sense.


“Sense and Sensibility” is arguably Austen’s most money-conscious novel and it pays explicit attention to that notorious concept: the marriage market. The number of marriageable women at the time Austen was writing outnumbered the eligible men and the relative size of ‘marriage portions’ (i.e. the money a bride brought to her marriage, whether in cash, land or ‘the stocks’) had been increasing steadily since the seventeenth century.

‘A master-key to the rich ladies treasury’ gives details on how women’s fortunes were used to create a transactional exchange that operated in direct contrast to the love-matches made by Austen’s heroines.

The Master Key reduces women to commodities. For all the love and happy endings in Austen's novels, marriage was also an economic transaction. Unless a woman's property was placed in trust before she got married (and her husband consented to this!) all her money, stocks and personal possessions came under his absolute control. He could sell them, give them away or even leave them to a third party in his will. The only type of property which he couldn't dispose of was her land. If she had a trust, it allowed her to continue to enjoy the benefit of her property but legal ownership of it was vested in the trustees. For unscrupulous men - such as Wickham or Willoughby - this automatic acquisition of their wife's fortune was a boon. It also highlights the problems Austen heroines such as Lizzie Bennet or the Dashwood sisters had finding partners because of their lack of fortunes.

With the exception of Emma Woodhouse (‘handsome, clever and rich’) Austen’s heroines do not have huge fortunes. However, they all still make happy, affectionate and financially-secure marriages, trading on virtues other than wealth to win their husbands.
Extract from Sense and Sensibility, ch. 33 has a conversation between Elinor and her step brother John Dashwood shows that he wanted her to marry for money.

After staying with them half an hour, he asked Elinor to walk with him to Conduit Street, and introduce him to Sir John and Lady Middleton. The weather was remarkably fine, and she readily consented. As soon as they were out of the house, his enquiries began.

“Who is Colonel Brandon? Is he a man of fortune?”
“Yes; he has very good property in Dorsetshire.”
“I am glad of it. He seems a most gentleman-like man; and I think, (Elinor, I may congratulate you on the prospect of a very respectable establishment in life.”
“Me, brother! what do you mean?”
“He likes you. I observed him narrowly, and am convinced of it. What is the amount of his fortune?” “I believe about two thousand a year.”
“Two thousand a-year;” and then working himself up to a pitch of enthusiastic generosity, he added, “Elinor, I wish with all my heart it were twice as much, for your sake.”
“Indeed I believe you,” replied Elinor; “but I am very sure that Colonel Brandon has not the smallest wish of marrying me.”
“You are mistaken, Elinor; you are very much mistaken. A very little trouble on your side secures him. Perhaps just at present he may be undecided; the smallness of your fortune may make him hang back; his friends may all advise him against it. But some of those little attentions and encouragements which ladies can so easily give will fix him, in spite of himself. And there can be no reason why you should not try for him. ”…..
He paused for her assent and compassion; and she forced herself to say, “Your expenses both in town and country must certainly be considerable; but your income is a large one.”
“Not so large, I dare say, as many people suppose. ….”

Elinor could only smile.

The Dashwoods' step-brother and his wife are mean and share as little of their inheritance as possible with Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, going against the late Mr. Dashwood's wishes. So they are clearly immoral. Elinor Dashwood shows the most forbearance and pragmatism in their impoverished state, so she is evidently of good moral character. Willoughby rejects Marianne in favour of a wealthy heiress, proving himself morally unworthy of Marianne.

This makes it clear to us that Jane Austen herself was keen to emphasize the importance of non-financial “capital,” such as morality, sincerity and true love with particular reference to women characters in her novels.

Word Count:2063
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