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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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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