A Woman’s Economic Opportunities During the Regency Era

By Amanda Nelson (appearing as Charlotte Lucas in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice)

“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.” ~ Jane Austen, letter of March 13, 1816

Genteel ladies of the Regency period.

Genteel ladies of the Regency period.

In Jane Austen’s time, there was no real way for young women of the “genteel” classes to strike out on their own or be independent. Professions, the universities, politics, etc., were not open to women. Thus Elizabeth’s opinion “that though this great lady [Lady Catherine] was not in the commission of the peace for the county, she was a most active magistrate in her own parish” is ironic, since of course no woman could be a justice of the peace or magistrate.

In Austen’s novels, as is quite true today, improving a family’s financial position was a prime objective. For women this essentially meant marriage. Few occupations were open to them as an alternative – and those few that were available, such as being a governess  (a live-in teacher for the daughters or young children of a family), were not highly respected, and did not generally pay well or have very good working conditions.

Jane Austen wrote in a letter of April 30th, 1811, about a governess hired by her brother Edward: “By this time I suppose she is hard at it, governing away — poor creature! I pity her, tho’ they are my nieces”; and the patronizing Mrs. Elton in Emma is “astonished” that Emma’s former governess is “so very lady-like … quite the gentlewoman” (as opposed to being like a servant).

Such limited options make marriage increasingly more vital, particularly for such a family as the Bennets with five daughters and very little inheritance for each of them. Pertaining to the financial difficulties of the Bennet women: “We are informed quite early in the novel that the Bennet estate is worth £2000 per annum. The complicating economic factor for the Bennet family–Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters–is the fact that the estate is entailed to a distant male relative (Mr. Collins). Upon Mr. Bennet’s death, Longbourn–the Bennet homestead–as well as all the estate income will pass immediately to Mr. Collins. Mrs. Bennet and her daughters must then be supported solely by the £5000 settled on Mrs. Bennet upon her marriage. At 4% the family survivors would be provisioned with only £200 pounds per annum. Considering that the touchstone income for independent living is £300, and…that Lydia’s annual support equals £90, we arrive at a requisite £750 per annum for the support of five dependent daughters by Mrs. Bennet.

PnP Sources of income

This brute economic fact underlies Mrs. Bennet’s obsessive drive to marry off her daughters, although it cannot excuse her folly. The entailed estate also greatly diminishes the fortunes of the Bennet daughters. Since Mr. Bennet has never been able to save, the girls are due to eventually inherit only the £1000 apiece due upon the death of their mother, meaning they can provide an income of only £40 per annum to a prospective marriage. Lizzy’s independent streak, manifested in her refusing marriage with Mr. Collins and her turning down the initial Darcy proposal, despite the potential material security proffered in both instances, carries greater significance when we keep the Bennet family’s tenuous financial position in mind. Also darkening the Bennet sisters’ marriage prospects is the fact that, while Mr. Bennet is a gentleman, Mrs. Bennet and her siblings are not genteel. Mrs. Philips is married to a Meryton attorney, and Mr. Gardner is a prosperous London tradesman.

A young lady studying music with her governess, c. 1810.

A young lady studying music with her governess, circa 1810.

Unmarried women also had to live with their families, or with family-approved protectors; it is almost unheard of for a genteel youngish and never-married female to live by herself, even if she happened to be an heiress. So Queen Victoria had to have her mother living with her in the palace in the late 1830’s, until she married Albert (though she and her mother actually were not even on speaking terms during that period). Only in the relatively uncommon case of an orphan heiress who has already inherited (i.e. who has “come of age” and whose father and mother are both dead), can a young never-married female set herself up as the head of a household, and even here she must hire a respectable older lady to be a “companion”.

When a young woman leaves her family without their approval, or leaves the relatives or family-approved friends or school where she has been staying, this is always very serious: a symptom of a radical break [with social and moral norms of the era], such as running away to marry a disapproved husband, or entering into an illicit relationship, as when Lydia leaves the Forsters to run away with Wickham.

A woman who did not marry could generally only look forward to living with her relatives as a “dependent” (more or less Jane Austen’s situation), so that marriage is pretty much the only way of ever getting out from under the parental roof; unless, of course, her family could not support her, in which case she could face the unpleasant necessity of going to live with employers as a “dependent” governess or teacher, or hired “lady’s companion”. A woman with no relations or employer was in danger of slipping off the scale of gentility. And in general, becoming an “old maid” was not considered a desirable fate. When Charlotte Lucas, at age 27, marries Mr. Collins, her brothers are “relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s  dying an old maid”, and Lydia says, “Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three and twenty!”

Most “genteel” women could not get money except by marrying for it or inheriting it, and since the eldest son generally inherits the bulk of an estate, as the heir, a woman can only really be an “heiress” if she has no brothers. Only a rather small number of women were what could be called professionals, who through their own efforts earned an income sufficient to make themselves independent, or had a recognized career. Jane Austen herself was not really one of these few women professionals; during the last six years of her life she earned an average of a little more than £100 a year by her novel-writing, but her family’s expenses were four times this amount, and she did not meet with other authors or move in literary circles.

Sources:

Jane Austen’s Economics; LWSD Public Portal. http://publicportal.lwsd.org/schools/ICS/pplank/humanities6/Shared%20Documents/Pride%20and%20Prejudice/Jane%20Austen’s%20Economics.pdf

Pride and Prejudice — Notes on Education, Marriage, Status of Women, etc. http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/pptopic2.html

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