What Pride and Prejudice Can Teach Us About Inequality

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a novel about love. It is less universally acknowledged that it is a novel about money, too.

The date of the story is not explicitly given in the book, and Jane Austen's world, being intentionally microcosmic and timeless, does not let in a single ray of external events that would allow us to put an unambiguous date on it. Perhaps it was her objective to illustrate how eternal affairs of the heart (and money) are.

The circumstantial evidence, however, points to the stage being set during the Napoleonic Wars, that is, around 1810- 1815. The main protagonist is the delightful Elizabeth Bennet, second oldest of five daughters from a rich family headed by Mr. Bennet (the paterfamilias's first name never appears in the book, his own wife calling him Mr. Bennet). Elizabeth and her family live the charmed life of English country gentry, a sort of pleasant idleness punctuated by balls and parties--and the social gossip to which the balls and parties give rise. Elizabeth is beautiful, intelligent, and, of course, unmarried. Her family's annual income is around £3,000, which, divided by seven family members (five sisters and their parents), gives a per capita income of £430 (excluding, as in the rest of the examples here, the imputed value of housing, which must have been considerable). This level of income places the Bennets in the top 1 percent of the English income distribution at the time, as calculated from Robert Colquhoun's English social table done for the early years of the nineteenth century.

Elizabeth meets a rich suitor, Mr. Darcy, whose annual income is put (by all concerned in the book) at £10,000. Both he and his somewhat less rich friend Mr. Bingley are understandably deemed very desirable bachelors by the socially conscious (and no-nonsense) mother of Elizabeth Bennet. Mr. Darcy's huge income places him, at the least, in the top one-tenth of 1 percent of income distribution. Note the huge gap existing between the top 1 percent and the top one-tenth of 1 percent, or, to use George W. Bush's modern phraseology, between "the haves and the have-mores." Although these early-nineteenth century English haves and have-mores freely intermingle socially (and apparently intermarry), Mr. Darcy's income is more than three times greater than Elizabeth's father's; translated in per capita terms (since Mr. Darcy does not take care of anyone but himself ), the ratio is in excess of twenty to one.

It will not be giving away the plot to point out that Elizabeth does have some doubts about the suitability of Mr. Darcy, who, in no uncertain terms, expresses his "adoration"--a period euphemism that would be stated quite differently in a modern book. But rebuffing him forever has an additional unpleasant implication. Due to English inheritance laws, if Mr. Bennet dies without a direct male heir, the house and well-functioning estate revert to his obnoxious cousin, the Reverend William Collins. In that case, Elizabeth has to live on her own income, which is basically her share of the £5,000 that her mother brought ("settled") into the marriage. Elizabeth's independent wealth is thus somewhat indelicately estimated by Reverend Collins, who also doubles as her ill-starred suitor, at £1,000. Mr. Collins assumes that she would make a return of 4 percent on it, and hence earn £40 per year. This is a rather measly amount, approximately equal to twice the mean income in England at the time. It is an income that a family of a surveyor or merchant marine seaman could expect.

This is where the love-wealth trade-off makes its appearance. Consider the situation from the point of view of Elizabeth's mother, worried about the happiness of her daughter. On the one hand, Elizabeth can marry Mr. Darcy and enjoy an annual income of £5,000 (we assume that she contributes nothing in monetary terms to Mr. Darcy and that Mr. Darcy shares his income evenly with Elizabeth). On the other, she can fall into what certainly seems to Mrs. Bennet a world of unremitting poverty, living on less than £50 annually. The income ratio between these two outcomes is simply staggering: more than one hundred to one. At that cost, the alternative of not marrying, or perhaps waiting until an ideal lover appears on the horizon, is out of the question. One would really have to hate Mr. Darcy to reject the deal he is tacitly offering!

But, we may ask, is it any different today? To reset Pride and Prejudice in today's United Kingdom, we need simply to look at today's income distribution. After taxes, people in the top 0.1 percent in 2004 made about £400,000 annually per capita, and those in the top 1 percent earned on average £81,000, while the average British per capita income was £11,600. The cost of turning down a Mr. Darcy-equivalent today would still be significant but much less overwhelming: The ratio between the incomes of those in the top 0.1 percent of the distribution and those at twice the mean is about seventeen to one rather than one hundred to one.

Jane Austen has thus not only illustrated the all too common trade-off between romance and riches but also allowed us to see that although the trade-off itself may be timeless, the stakes do vary with time and with the income distribution of the society in which one lives. In more equal societies, we expect that when decisions about marriage are made, love tends to trump wealth more often. And the reverse will then be true in very unequal societies. Will love in very unequal societies, then, exist only outside marriage?

Excerpted from The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Inequality Around the Globe.