When I wrote a Study Guide to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (under my non-fiction author name of Mary Hartley) for 16-year old exam students, I re-read one of my favourite books and it reinforced my view that Austen should be classed as a major social satirist and economic analyst rather than a romantic novelist.
Money Can’t Buy Me Love, sang The Beatles, but in Pride and Prejudice, often hailed as the greatest romantic comedy of all time, money gets more of a look-in than love, and love without money is shown to be a recipe for disaster.
In the first five chapters, Austen obliges us with some familiar romantic fare.
We are allowed that romcom staple, the meet-cute, with its most satisfying mix of engaging circumstances — the ball — and personality clash — Elizabeth and Darcy hate each other at first sight! Of course they’ll get married!
But we also learn that Bingley has ‘four or five thousand a year’, and has inherited property of ‘nearly a hundred thousand pounds’, while Darcy is in a much higher league with ‘ten thousand a year’.
How much of an income would you think those mean Bingley girls have? They have ‘a fortune of twenty thousand pounds’.
The precision of these sums highlights the close relationship between money and marriage.
Although many experts have done sterling work (ha! See what I did there?) in translating these sums into contemporary figures, we don’t really need these correspondences to make us aware of the calculations which accompany every partnering in the novel.
Darcy’s unexpected rival
You could almost hate Lizzie Bennet. She’s not conventionally good-looking (all right, enough about the fine eyes) and she certainly doesn’t go out of her way to please anyone or temper her sharp tongue, but practically every man she meets falls for her.
Mr Collins (he doesn’t really count, we know), Wickham, Darcy, and hovering on the brink, someone I had previously rather overlooked — Colonel Fitzwilliam.
Fitzwilliam likes Elizabeth from the start, and the two of them have a little ganging-up against Darcy.
Lizzie makes the most of having a charming and engaging ally who clearly fancies her. They are actually a bit intolerable: Oh, go on, tell me what he’s like with strangers! Do you know, at the ball, he only danced with girls he already knew? Like you can’t be introduced at a party!
Elizabeth’s aunt spots what’s going on and thinks her niece and Fitzwilliam would make a good pair, except that — here it is again — Darcy is in a more substantial position.
And then the Colonel and Lizzie touch on such matters in a conversation in which he indicates that, as the younger son of an earl, he’s pretty well-off, but needs to marry a rich woman.
He and Lizzie joke about the sum involved — would fifty thousand do the trick? It’s a sophisticated and quite sexy exchange, in which both parties are aware of the financial realities of the marriage market.
As WH Auden wrote:
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Had it not been for the demands of the rhyme scheme, instead of ‘sobriety’ he might have said viciousness, sharpness, clear-headedness, lack of sentimentality.