Judith Lambert

Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

My part of the project was to give information about the values of currency and the laws and customs of inheritance in the 18th Century. I also wanted to give an idea of the equivalency of money then and now. Since Jane Austen placed a great deal of emphasis on money – the abundance or lack thereof in her writings – our group thought that it would be a useful contribution to our knowledge. I intentionally did not include aspects of the numerous depressions that affected England and Europe as a whole or the processes of the Industrial Revolution. Jane Austen did not deal with those influences, so I did not either.

On first turning to internet sources, I found several sites from which data could be extrapolated to derive fairly accurate equivalencies. There were also a number of reliable internet sites that gave information on inheritance laws and customs. In the Lipscomb Library I – with some able assistance from Michelle – was able to gather choice tidbits that were beneficial in rounding out my information.

Locating data pertaining to the 18th Century was arduous and the facts scanty, perhaps due to the lack of historical records of the time. There was a great deal more to be found concerning the 19th Century.

What I enjoyed most was working in the Library and working with Michelle and Kelly in the Library. We spent a cheery and productive time together. I did feel my actual presentation could have been more lively.

My interest in all things English is steadfast. I want to do and see everything possible.

This segment of our presentation deals with a matter near and dear to the heart of Jane Austen: money. It will not, of course, attempt to deal with every jot and tiddle of its existence and environment in the 18th Century. That would be too broad a topic. What will be taken up will be some of money questions as they generally concern the culture and customs of the day and as they specifically relate to our readings thus far.

The following was borrowed from an Alfred University website and taken from “A Conversion Table from Roy Porter’s English Society in the Eighteenth Century”:

Before continuing, I would like to point out that the British pound is more than the US dollar. On January 22 of this year the equivalency was

1 US dollar = ₤0.69662

1 pound = $1.43550

Just to give you an idea of the historic equivalencies of the value of the pound: A study by the Economic Policy and Statistics Section of Britain’s House of Commons Library indicates that for the period 1750 to 1998 “based on a range of official and unofficial sources,” a single penny in 1750 would have had more purchasing power than a whole pound in 1998.

Let’s look at a bigger picture. In 1765 England, 5 thousand pounds would have had the same purchasing power as 413 thousand nine pounds and change in 2001. In 1780, Edward Ferrars’ 1 thousand pounds a year would have amounted to 83 thousand five hundred and seven pounds last year. That seems pretty substantial. At that rate, the buying power of Miss Grey’s 50 thousand pounds certainly would have turned a far less fickle a head than Willoughby’s. Why, the Dowager Princess of Wales, Mother of the Sovereign, George III, collected only 60 thousand pounds in the year 1770. “Monkeyface” collected only 58 thousand.

Of course, Miss Grey’s 50 thousand pounds was her total fortune. Heiresses’ fortunes stated in fiction such as Austen’s were understood immediately by their contemporaries as yearly incomes through multiplying them by 5 per cent, a procedure that revealed their yearly income from investment in the 5 per cent government funds. Therefore, Miss Grey’s yearly income would have been 25 hundred pounds. Still enough to keep Willoughby in style.

According to Edward Copeland in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, the number of servants was the gauge for ranking incomes at the lower levels. The acquisition of a carriage was the cutting edge for incomes that were somewhat higher; and a “house in town” certified the holding of large incomes, those most often belonging to the “prosperous landed gentry.” Having servants might be considered the equivalent of today’s modern “household conveniences: add a servant, add convenience – hot water, central heating, a washing machine, and so on.” Just to give an idea of the expense of servants, in 1761 a Head housemaid would have made about 5 pounds a year and a Head footman about 7 pounds.

A household expenditure that everyone shared was the window tax. It was simply “a tax on the number of windows in houses, first imposed in 1696 in place of the hearth tax.” The hearth tax had been “a tax levied at the rate of 2 shillings on every fire hearth from 1662 to 1689. The hearth tax’s unpopularity led to its abandonment in favor of the – be careful what you ask for – window tax. The window tax, in 1782, was graduated starting at one shilling per window up to ten and rising sharply on every window thereafter.” It was ultimately replaced by a “duty on inhabited houses” in 1851.

Another financial requirement of one and all was the tithe. It required “payment of one-tenth of the earnings or produce of an inhabitant of a parish for the upkeep of the church.” A parish was “any district under the religious care of a priest.” Thus, Mrs. Dashwood would have had to pay 50 pounds of her 500 yearly jointure to the Church of England, unless, of course Sir John paid it and no mention was made that he did.

Mrs. Dashwood’s jointure, by the way, was her settlement, inherited upon her husband’s death, that constituted “certain specified property from his (or their joint) estate ... by which she would inherit a life interest in a portion (usually a third) of his real property.” Life interest meant that the funds were provided to her only during her lifetime and could not be passed on to her daughters as they terminated upon Ms. Dashwood’s death.

In the 18th Century “there were major discrepancies between common law and actual practice regarding inheritance. Common law dictated that land would be passed down to the oldest son. If there were no sons, land would be inherited by the daughters and divided equally. And that the daughters had preference over any related males who were not sons. Realistically, however, that was not the case. One source suggests “that -- statistically -- 42 percent of women would” then have been “heiresses, either directly or through collateral inheritance, by common law. Yet, between 1540 and 1780 only 5 percent of inheritances went to daughters and 8 percent to collateral females.” Collateral in this sense, according to The Winston Dictionary, means a female “related by descent from a common ancestor in a different line.”

Common law was the accepted way of doing things in the 18th Century. “Distinguished from law created by legislature; common law comprise[d] the body of those principles and rules of action, relating to the government and security of persons and property, which derive[d] their authority solely from the usages and customs of immemorial antiquity, or from the judgements and decrees of the courts recognizing, affirming, and enforcing such usages and customs; and in this sense, particularly the ancient unwritten law of England.”

The common law rule of inheritance was based on primogeniture, the “rule of inheritance by which all of a parent’s property descended to the oldest son, excluding daughters and younger sons.” It was a “[s]ystem developed during the feudal period of medieval Europe, when each landholder was responsible to his lord for military service. Primogeniture served to keep the noble’s estate, and therefore his military obligation, from being divided among many heirs.”

The entail legally formalized that customary practice of inheritance. “If an estate were divided equally between all siblings ... the estate would be dispersed, and would ultimately cease to exist.”

Jane Austen highlighted the injustices of this system of inheritance the beginning of Sense and Sensibility. The narrator relates how rich, old Mr. Dashwood tied up both his money and his estate so that it had to stay in the male line, and could not be passed on to the young women of his family even though the male heir was already handsomely provided for.

It is remarkable that women’s lack of autonomy in this period was precisely the result of their status in the marriage market as a type of financial or consumer commodity central to the process of social mobility among genteel families. Women’s value was seen, in a sense, in inverse proportion to their uselessness (and, effectively, their powerlessness), in that their genteel credentials – and the fact that they had reliable credit to bring to a marriage – were validated by the fact that they did not earn their own living. Therefore, to have value and a certain type of power in the marriage stakes, middle-class woman could not earn their own living; but this obviously placed them in an economically vulnerable position where they were always actually at the mercy of the male world’s decisions about their ‘investment’ value: fathers would decide how much to settle on them, and the open market of prospective husbands would then decide if it was enough.”