Quite apart from reading and appreciating Jane Austen’s language, it has been my experience that students have difficulty understanding her world. For example, is Mr. Darcy really rich? After all, £10,000 doesn’t sound like a lot of money. What’s a pelisse anyway? What’s with all the letter writing? What’s up with all the tea? Of course, these questions probably barely scratch the surface, but you get the idea. In this new series, utilizing Jane Austen blogs and Web sites, I intend to attempt to gather resources that will help high school students access Jane Austen’s world.
Money (and its lack) is referenced often in Jane Austen’s work. In fact, the first line of Pride and Prejudice, references money: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Indeed, two single men of good fortunes appear in this novel — Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet, excited at the prospect of one of her daughters snagging Mr. Bingley, says, “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!” [I love Mr. Bennet's reply, but as it doesn't touch on my point, I shall restrain myself from expounding upon it.] Exactly how much is that? To modern sensibilities, that doesn’t sound like much of a fortune. The wonderful blog Jane Austen’s World has a post, “Pride and Prejudice Economics: Or Why a Single Man with a Fortune of £4,000 Pounds Per Year is a Desirable Husband,” which describes several monetary references in Austen’s novels and letters in modern terms. Mr. Bingley’s £4,000 a year would be £135,840 in modern terms. If your students are American, they’re most likely still in the dark. Currency converters abound all over the Internet, but my handy converter on my iGoogle home page says that this sum is currently equal to $265,841.29. Not too shabby. Not insanely rich, but certainly extremely comfortable and wanting for nothing. So what about Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year? Roughly £339,600, or $664,603.21. Well over half a million a year certainly puts Mr. Darcy in the upper echelons of society, not to mention this sum is only 4% interest on his entire “vast fortune.” And the poor Dashwoods, who had to get by on only £500? Well, they’re certainly not well off by anyone’s measure, but they (sadly) pull in about the same amount as a teacher’s starting salary in many areas of the country — about £16,980, or $33,230.16. Jane Austen’s World also has an interesting discussion of Marianne Dashwood’s assertion that £1,800 to 2,000 is a “moderate” income.
This post is the first in a series on teaching Jane Austen’s novels.