Portrait of an Era: the Georgian Cost of Living
For many of us, the novels of Jane Austen have probably been instrumental in the shaping of our sense of the Georgian period. The fashion, the social hierarchy, the etiquette and mannerisms we all know through reading her novels and letters.
We Jane Austen detectives may delve deeper and draw up a historical background by reading the novels and poetry Austen read, and visiting the places she knew. However, when we satisfy these curiosities about the setting of our beloved novels, we are engaging in more than a little private sleuthing. It may be surprising to hear that popular novels can be a gateway to historical research, but to many social historians Jane Austen’s writing has proved highly useful.
In one area especially, Austen provides astonishingly accurate and detailed information: the Georgian cost of living. Money plays a central role in each of her novels, with the heroine often suffering a reversal of fate through the loss of a steady income. Jane herself experienced a similar shock: her father’s living in Steventon came with a smallholding which made the family largely self-sufficient. As a result, when her father retired and moved his family to Bath, they had little notion of the cost of urban living, and were obliged to move into a succession of smaller houses and worse neighbourhoods.
Casting her keen eye over a society in which money was a vulgar but crucial subject, it is no wonder that Jane should put her finger so neatly on its influence. Thus, her novels serve as an excellent illustration to this rather bewildering topic. In High Society in the Regency Period, Venetia Murray outlines the facts of a Georgian income, explaining that, to get any sense of how much it was worth in modern terms, it is necessary to multiply by 50. However, life without modern conveniences required money to be spent on very different things than we would today, and so it is still difficult to grasp the necessary array of housemaids and carriage horses that were an integral part of a middle-class family’s expenses.
As Murray points out, this is where a novel like Sense and Sensibility can help, as ‘Mrs John Dashwood, having condemned her sisters-in-law and their mother to living on £500 a year, points out exactly what such an income will, or rather will not, buy: “They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind!”’ (Murray, 1999; p. 80). This is, very clearly, a huge come-down for a family who had been used to an estate like Norland Park.
Thus, Austen’s novels, which must, in her own day, have appealed to many because of their accurate depiction of money as a social motivator, still paint a very clear and useful picture of a by-gone era alien to the modern reader. In her own satirical way, Jane Austen probably agreed with Isabella Thorpe of Northanger Abbey when she declares that ‘after all that romancers may say, there is no doing without money’.
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