For anyone who has ever read Jane Austen, or novels of the same period, and wondered exactly the source of someone like Mr. Darcy’s income, you are not alone. It is hard to determine at what this character, or others in similar situations, were employed. It is also not readily apparently in what ways their money might have been invested that they were able to live lives of such leisure.
The landed gentry of Georgian England appears to have generally derived their incomes in several ways. Some, were involved in industry. Industry at the time often included textile manufacturing in the north of England, or at times participation in the Triangular Trade; that between Africa, the Caribbean and northern Europe. There is a great deal of speculation as to whether Austen’s characters were involved in the slave trade, except in the case of the Bertrams of Mansfield Park, who are specifically noted to have derived their income from that industry.
The other primary source of income for those who figured prominently in Jane Austen’s novels would likely have come from investments in government bonds. This accounts for the references to percentages found in in Miss. Austen’s books. To take a prominent character as an example, Mr. Bingley’s inheritance from his father is said to be nearly £100,000, but Mrs. Bennet describes his income as “four or five thousand a year”, because she is not sure what his 100,000 inheritance is earning, but it was often a yield of 4 – 5%. In fact, British government debt was the only security traded on the London Stock Exchange from its opening in 1801 until 1822. During this time and afterwards, the British government used debt financing with aplomb to keep itself running and was able to service its debt in a very successful manner.
With all this said, the various sources of income for characters in novels of this era remains cryptic. Take for example, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. He returns with a fortune, but it is never revealed how he earned it. It would be tempting to chalk this up to a historical, and perhaps cultural distaste for discussing money, but in the case of Austen’s characters, one’s income is hashed out ad nauseum. Miss. Austen understood the English economy of the time very well and the subject makes for interesting historical economics.