The Importance of Money in Jane Austen’s Novels


There’s nothing more important than
money in Jane Austen’s novels. There’s a wonderful little vignette early on in
Sense and Sensibility where Elinor and Marianne debate the importance of money
and I think it’s a sort of exchange which illustrates later
exchanges about money throughout Jane Austen’s fiction because Marianne says
money doesn’t matter beyond a competence. You need enough. And Elinor
seems to be arguing that money matters very, very much and of course it turns
out quite rapidly in the course of this exchange that what Marianne calls a
competence, which is a word which was very frequently used in the early 19th
century, is 2,000 pounds a year, which is huge wealth and what Elinor means by
wealth, is a thousand pounds a year. I mean to pluck a figure not quite out of
the air, when Jane Austen was living in the first decade of the 19th century in
Bath, in rented rooms with her father, her mother and her sister Cassandra, they
were living as a unit on about six hundred and fifty pounds a year. I mean Bath’s quite expensive, but on that kind of income, you can have a couple of servants
and you can rent somewhere reasonably nice and that is kind of the level of
a competence in the early 19th century. We find out early on in the novel
exactly what the Dashwood family mother and three daughters have to live on and
it’s just over five hundred pounds a year. And in the
wonderful second chapter of Sense and Sensibility, we hear Fanny Dashwood kind
of bargaining her husband down from giving them each a thousand pounds to
finally agreeing to sort of give them the odd pheasant at Christmas. And the
amount that he was thinking of giving them,
to be true to the promise he made to his father on his father’s deathbed, because he’s a half-sibling of the of the Dashwood girls, the amount that he
thought he was going to give them, until his wife intervened, would have been
exactly enough to raise them from, sort of, kind of quite difficult,
shabby, genteel circumstances to relative comfort, from just over five hundred
pounds a year to something like just over six hundred pounds a year, which
would then they were fine. But Marianne has ridiculous ideas about money as does
her mother, of course. Her mother thinks they should carry on keeping a carriage
which they can’t at all afford to do. And the important thing about, I think,
money in Jane Austen, isn’t just that she is very precise about it and that she’s
very unsentimental about it and the characters who say they don’t care about
money are never to be trusted. Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey says
‘I hate money’, which you interpret as meaning actually ‘I love money really’.
That’s what’s in her heart. But the really crucial thing which
first-time readers in particular should look at is the way that characters
have, as it were, a label round their necks saying how much money they’re
worth. So everybody knows how much money everybody’s worth, or they think they do.
I mean, funnily enough, in our world people are much more secretive about
money, I think, than they were in Jane Austen’s world. Partly because of
circumstances, marriage settlements made semi-public the amount of money people
were worth when they got married. Mr. Collins knows how much the Bennett’s
are worth, how much money Mrs. Bennett has got to leave to her daughter’s. He
knows. It’s sort of public information. And so money shapes the exchanges and
the interactions that the characters have because they themselves know about
it and like every bit of, sort of background information in Jane Austen,
it’s not really background information, it’s part of the drama of the
interactions of the characters.

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