Was Darcy a One Percenter? Literary Money Questions, Answered

Am I the only one fascinated by the issue of currency conversion in literature? When a posh fictional nobleman is rumored to have an income of such-and-such, or when a plucky nineteenth-century hero pockets his first dollar, I get the itch to know how much that is by modern standards. The problem used to bug me as kid; nowadays, thanks to Alan Eliasen's Historical Currency Conversions tool, I'm rolling in knowledge like a pirate in doubloons.


Here are just a few of the site's revelations. (All modern dollar figures are based on currency values for today's date, rounded to the nearest American dollar.)

1. How Rich Is Mr. Darcy?

Rich. Our lucky friend Fitzwilliam draws the most famous income in literature: £10,000 per year. In 1813, the year Pride and Prejudice was published, this would have equaled $727,470. With that kind of cash, you could commission an incredibly kitschy statue of yourself rising out of a lake.

But if it doesn't seem like enough to tempt you, remember that wealth is relative and Austen belonged to a rigidly stratified society. As James Heldman pointed out in a 1990 paper:

Mr. Darcy’s income is at least 300 times the per capita income in his day. Moreover, Mr. Darcy belongs to a very select group. G.E. Mingay, an economic historian, estimates that in 1790, about twenty years before the time of Pride and Prejudice, there were only 400 families among the landed gentry in England whose incomes fell within that range...

The population of England in 1790 was about 8 million. If we assume (generously) 100 living members per extended family, that would place anyone in those 400 families among the wealthiest 0.5% of the nation at the time.

Darcy's somewhat less loaded friend, Bingley, draws an income of £4,000, which comes to $290,988 per year. Still a very eligible gentleman, if you please.

2. How Poor Is Bob Cratchit?

Poor. In fact, starving. He supports himself, his wife, and at least six children (one of them very sick) on a salary of fifteen shillings a week—which in 1843 equaled just over $82. For that meager scratch he's working all day, every day, straight through Christmas Eve.

You knew Scrooge was a coldhearted bastard, but you didn't know he was a flat-out abusive monster. Of course, that was life before labor laws (it's still life in many countries today), but the whole point of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge was insanely stingy even by his society's standards. When he has his epiphany and gives his traumatized wage slave a raise, Cratchit's first reaction is telling:

Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

I get the sense he'd fantasized about using that ruler before.

3. How Much Did Thoreau's Cabin Cost?

Thoreau was quite proud of his bookkeeping. In the "Economy" chapter of Walden, he meticulously details his expenditures for his first eight months on the Pond:

So that all the pecuniary outgoes, excepting for washing and mending, which for the most part were done out of the house, and their bills have not yet been received . . . were

House, $28 12 1/2

Farm one year, 14 72 1/2

Food eight months, 8 74

Clothing &c., eight months, 8 40 3/4

Oil, &c., eight months, 2 00 

In all, $61 99 3/4

Henry's camping trip took place in 1845, when $28.125 (three decimal places!) equaled about $868 in today's dollars. Not a bad outlay for a house. (Of course, he was living on his friend Emerson's land for zero rent.) And the total cost of those eight months? Unpaid laundry bills aside, it comes to about $1,914.

4. How Much Did the Piggy-Wig Sell His Ring For?

In Edward Lear's beloved poem "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat," the happy couple sails to the land of the Bong-Tree to ask the Piggy-Wig a favor: 

"Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

Your Ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."

The poem was written in 1871, when one shilling would have been worth just over $5 in current dollars. The Piggy-Wig does not drive a very hard bargain.

5. How Much Did Tom and Huck Earn From Their Gold?

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom and Huck find Injun Joe's stolen gold in McDougal's Cave and shock their town by revealing that they are now among its wealthiest citizens. Just how much did they rake in?

Twain gives the haul as "a little over twelve thousand dollars." Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, but that seems like the wrong year to use as a benchmark, since the story is clearly set in a fantasy version of Twain's childhood village. Tom and Huck are about twelve years old; Twain would have turned twelve in 1847. Twelve thousand dollars in 1847 would be worth $339,599 today—more than enough to free Huck from his barrel and put him in fancy new clothes. Wonder how that would have played out in a sequel?

6. How Much Is Three Guineas?

As in Three Guineas, the 1938 essay in which Virginia Woolf considers various means of preventing war through philanthropy. Three 1938 guineas would be worth $224 today—not a huge donation, but really the money functions as a literary device. (Woolf dedicates one section of the essay to each of three causes, allotting a guinea to each and explaining the reasons for her support.)

More interesting is the fact that the guinea was no longer a real coin in 1938. It was a unit meaning "21 shillings" and used exclusively in upper-crust transactions. Thus a Savile Row suit might be sold for a certain number of guineas, but your proletarian rags most assuredly would not. As the American wealth gap widens, I look forward to seeing this practice revived among our ultra-rich. "I went for it, Tad. 20K for the Hublot. What's that? No, in guineas. Right, right, $420,000. Good God, did you think I was skimping?"

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

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