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Sunday, 7 February 2010

Profit and Profitability - How much was Mr Darcy worth?

'Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mein; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.'

Pride and Prejudice, (1813)

Put crudely, there was an all too intimate relationship between bank balance and bonkability in Jane Austen's England. The question of a prospective husband's worth embraced both the personal and economic senses of the word, though not always entirely comfortably, as Persuasion's Captain Wentworth discovers. At the climax of Pride and Prejudice Mr Darcy resolves the Wickham affair through a combination of raw financial muscle and gentlemanly discretion, a combination which looks not entirely unlike bribery.

Darcy ends up purchasing Wickham the rank of ensign in an infantry regiment stationed near Newcastle. Incidentally, not only was this the lowest possible commission on offer, but ensigns were expected to carry the colours of the regiment into battle - making them a somewhat tempting target for French artillery.

George Wickham, who bears a passing resemblance to contemporary actor Sean Bean, was eventually promoted to a lieutenancy in the 95th Rifles

Of course I'm not suggesting that this particular thought was going through Darcy's 'noble mein' at the time of the purchase - if military matters were at all on the brain he was probably thinking how best to push back the frontiers of Lizzy Bennet's empire line. Just sayin', y'know...

The note in my Penguin edition accompanying the above quotation suggests that Darcy's income puts him within the top 400 richest families in England at the time - but how rich was that exactly? If Darcy were alive today would he be as wealthy as a FTSE 100 CEO - with an annual salary running in the tens of millions, or would he be closer to, say, a premiership footballer?

There is no single answer, for the reason that there are many different ways of assessing wealth, or, more specifically, the value of the British pound at a given moment in history. To say that Darcy was a member of one of the '400 richest' families in England is perhaps less informative than it seems, since it doesn't provide us with an average income to compare Darcy's against. Wealth is always relative: both to the price of commodities and the average income of a given society.

In pursuit of the question I found this website the other day.

As you can see it allows the user to calculate the relative value of the pound from any year since 1264. To assess the value of Darcy's annual income in contemporary money I typed in 1798 for the initial year and 2008 for the desired year. (There's a long running critical debate as to the exact year of Pride and Prejudice's setting but the presence of militia troops on the south coast evokes the British response to the fears of a French invasion in the late 1790s, similarly the allusion to the 'restoration of peace' in the final chapter supposedly looks forward to the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.)

The calculator then provides two different figures:



The first represents Mr Darcy's purchasing power in 2008, based on the average price of household costs. As we can see 10,000 late eighteenth-century pounds would buy him 850,000 contemporary pounds worth of 'stuff', (think in terms of food and fuel). The second represents Mr Darcy's income, relative to average British earnings. Compared to the most earners, Mr Darcy is a multi-millionaire, taking a comfortable £8 million a year, in payment for huntin', shootin', fishin' and chasin' Keira Knightly.

Discerning readers will note that there is one British family, even today, who get paid rather more for performing similar duties:

Prejudice and Pride

Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, etd. income: £8,000,000 per annum

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