I came across an essay with that title recently in an old copy of Persuasions, the publication of JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America), and it made for some fascinating reading. One of the major themes of Austen’s books is money–who has it, who doesn’t, what size house can they afford, and can they marry, should they marry, must they marry?
Naturally I now can’t find that issue and the article,* but fortunately I took notes, and I also came across this wonderfully useful site, www.measuringworth.com where you can translate the value of the pound from the thirteenth century into modern (2006 British pounds) currency, based on the retail price index. If you double that figure, you get, more or less, today’s $ value. As a rough guide, for calculating yearly incomes, for instance, multiply by one hundred.
Quick currency lesson/refresher: 12 pennies (d for denarius) make a shilling; 20 shillings (sh or s) make a pound (can’t find the symbol on blogger, but it’s a curly L for libra). Then there are guineas, which are a pound and a shilling, and used for some items–wages, horses, carriages, gambling debts–mainly luxury items. Sometime I’d like to research what was priced in guineas and what wasn’t. Anyone know? These are both sides of a golden guinea from the first decade of the nineteenth century.
The article took some prices from Jane Austen’s letters of 1810 and I translated these into the modern equivalent (rounding them up to the nearest 50c). Jane liked silk stockings which cost her 12s a pair or about $65–what you’d probably pay now for silk stockings by Prada (yes, it was an excuse to go onto ebay). She had a cloak made for 10s, about $54, which seems quite cheap for tailor-made clothes. Meat was 8d a pound ($3.50), butter a shilling a pound ($5), cheese 9 1/2d a pound ($4)–fairly close to our prices. But fresh salmon was a whopping 2s 9d a pound for a whole fish, $14–presumably because of the expense of shipping it (anyone know which rivers were the salmon rivers then? I’m guessing the Avon–I think the Thames, coming back now as a salmon river, was too polluted). A copy of Pride & Prejudice cost 18s–$94! She paid 30 guineas for the piano at Chawton, or $3,282–about what you’d pay now for a superior upright.
The most telling figures I found, however, were for the price of a quartern, the four pound loaf, which cost 11 3/4 d (eleven and three farthings) in the period 1800-1804, but by 1810 the price had risen to 2s 6d (half-a-crown), or from $6 to $13. This was the staple food of most common people and laborers made probably only a few shillings a day–life was very hard at the bottom of the social scale.
And now it’s question time. What’s your favorite money-related scene in something you’ve read or written?
Feldman, James, “How Wealthy Is Mr. Darcy–Really?” Persuasions, 1990, Vol. 12.
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