Marriage and Property in Jane Austen’s Novels
For the landed gentry at the end of the eighteenth century, writes J.F.G. Gornall, there were two main components in marriage. Jane Austen’s novels reveal how 'equal alliance' was at least as important as mutual affection.
Jane Austen's novels describe the social life of the English landed gentry at the turn of the eighteenth century from the point of view of a number of young women in their late teens, or early twenties, who are trying to find a husband.
Many of the problems they encounter arise from the fact that marriage, at that time and in that class, was not only a matter of mutual affection and social compatibility, but also an institution through which the landed gentry maintained and increased its financial position.
The landed gentry and peerage in 1790 comprised about 25,000 families, whose livelihood depended chiefly on the ownership of land. The average yearly income of the great landowners (about 400 families) was £10,000. 4,000 to 5,000 families received £1,000 to £5,000 a year, and the remainder less.1
Jane Austen’s families fall, on the whole, into the upper and middle income groups, but exclude the peerage and the wealthiest landed gentry. The richest landowner whose precise income is given is Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park, who had £12,000 a year; the poorest is Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, with only £600 to £700. An idea of what was considered a reasonable income in the class Jane Austen wrote about can be gathered from Marianne’s remarks in Sense and Sensibility.
‘£2,000 a year is a very moderate income. A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller... A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.’
£2,000 to £4,000 a year is probably the average income of the principal landed families in the novels. People with incomes from sources other than land are, of course, mentioned. Admiral Croft in Persuasion had made a fortune by the capture of prizes.