The Value of Money in British Literature
or, why you'd kill a man over 500 quid in 1729

Shillings, crowns, pence, pounds, sovereigns and guineas. You've heard them mentioned in films, seen them in books, and based on the organization of the system, wondered why you'd want them at all.

Marriages were brokered, inheritances granted, and fortunes won. Lovely to read about, of course, and oh, my, isn't that strapping Mr. Rochester rich. Well, yes, at least according to everyone else in the book. But what is that money worth to you?

As it turns out, quite a bit. It's difficult to go back very far, so whether a farthing in 1215 would buy you a car or a swift kick in the shins in 2002 is beyond me. But one thing is abundantly clear: those groats and florins add up.

What follows is a selection of monetary conversions from famous works of British Literature, translated to 2001 pounds and dollars in terms of buying power. I have used an exchange rate of 1.45 for the dollar-such as it was on December 19th, 2001. So please read on, and fall in love with Mr. Darcy all over again.

Who Steals my Purse Purse: Shakespeare

Ducats. Always with the ducats. And what IS it with him and Verona? At the time, future Italy was big with bankers, lovers, and in Venice, at least one Jew with a nasty reputation. I have seen the ducat valued from £ 1 to £1.50--we'll split the difference and call it £1.25. Therefore:

Hardly seems worth the penalty of a pound of flesh, does it? (no blood, mind you).

Bet he wished he had the National Health Service.

Please Note: The Value of the Ducat is currently under further investigation with the assistance of Albert Herring. Its worth may need to be updated. Thank you.

    Henry IV, Part II
    (I have to cheat a bit here-the play is set in the early 1400s, and pre-1500 values are hard to come by, so I've translated it to what late 16th Century audiences would have valued the numbers at)
  • Amount won by Nym from Pistol while gambling: 8 shillings
  • Current value: £53.52 or $77.60
    Henry V
  • Amount Falstaff has on him when called to the army: 7 groats, 2 pence
  • Current value: £16.73 or $24.26

Not even enough to cover his bar tab.

I Propose that Jonathon Swift was Not Modest

It's 1729. Jonathon Swift is Irish, angry, and thinks Parliament could do with a few less yahoos and a few more Houyhnhnms. He has this idea about eating the nation's children...

    A Modest Proposal
  • The amount a 'good fat child' should cost at a butchers' shop: 10 shillings
  • Current value: £45.09 or $65.38
  • The price of a fifteen-year-old girl in Formosa (haute cuisine!): 400 crowns
  • Current value: £9018.72 or $13,077.14
  • What the nation would save by eating the economically burdensome children of the poor: £ 50,000 per year
  • Current value: £4,509,358.78 or $6,538,570.20.

Still rather a drop in the bucket, but certainly enough to buy a missile or two.

No, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility aren't really just the same book.

As the story goes, single men possessed of fortunes in 1831 must be needing wives. And let me tell you, some of these boys had fortunes. But they still only got one wife.

    Pride and Prejudice
  • Mr. Bingley's Income: £5,000 per year
  • Current value: £163,257.49 or $236,723.36
  • Mr. Darcy's Income: £10,000 per year
  • Current value: £326,514.98 or $473,446.72
  • The cost of Darcy bailing out Lydia and Wickham: approx. £ 13,450
  • Current value: £439,162.64 or $636,785.82

And DeBeers says two months' salary is the cost of engagement. Ha!

Burning Down the House

My name is Charlotte Bronte. I have two sisters. They are writers, too. People think I'm sad all the time. It's 1847.

    Jane Eyre
  • Jane's salary at Lowood: £15 a year
  • Current value: £732.91 or $1062.72
  • Jane's salary at Mr. Rochester's: £ 30 a year
  • Current value: £1465.82 or $2125.44
  • Amount Jane inherits: £20,000
  • Current value: £977,207.10 or $1,416,950.20

If you're not friendly with your uncle, perhaps you should be.

Aged P's and Crazy Old Women

Charles Dickens--paid by the word, and it shows. Guess it took a few extra adjectives to cover a month's rent in 1861.

    Great Expectations
  • Amount of money Pip is to receive: £ 500 per year
  • Current value: £23585.82 or $34,199.44

Still not enough to impress Estella, not that you'd want to.

Stonehenge-Nice Place to Visit, But I Wouldn't Want to Die There

Thomas Hardy-har-har. But that's where he has poor Tess wind up--hope I haven't ruined the ending for you. It was published in 1891-set some years earlier, but that's the gun to which I'm sticking.

Long book, short entry.

So You've Read All of Finnegan's Wake. You Want a Medal?

James Joyce's books now often come with annotations equal or greater in length than the works themselves. Hope you have plenty of tea, time, and no reason to leave the house.

  • Cost of One Bath and Gratification, in 1904: one shilling and sixpence.
  • Current value: £4.64 or $6.73
  • Cost of One Dinner and Gratification: two shillings
  • Current value: £6.19 or $8.98
  • A loan to Stephen Daedalus: £1,7,0.
  • Current value: £83.50 or $116.90
  • That loan is worth quite a bit of gratification. Nice friend to have, that Master Bloom.

    Thanks to Ouroboros for suggesting and facilitating this entry.

    Don't Know About You, But Virginia Woolf Scares the Hell Out of Me.

    It's 1929. And it's about damn time female fiction writers had a place in the modern world. But they're going to need a couple of things first. Like:

      A Room of One's Own
    • The amount of money, to be held independently, necessary to harbor a writing career: £500 per year
    • Current value: £20,323.45 or $29,469

    Hm. Yes, well. That would do it.

    I Know Precious Little about 20th Century Fiction

    Seriously, I don't. So Ms. Woolf is as far into the 1900s as I'm willing to go. Some sums were paltry, others quite large. I am proud to report that I make more at my job than Jane Eyre, but it's a far cry from being Mr. Darcy. Ah, so much for dreams of Pemberley.

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