Gifting a Dowry
Jane Austen fans will remember the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Bennet laments his inability to pay back the money put up as a dowry for his daughter, Lydia. He believes the money came from his brother-in-law.
We know it was Darcy who provided the funds to persuade wicked Wickham to marry the wayward Lydia.
But how much did Darcy pony up? Was it five thousand pounds? Ten thousand?
I discovered a wonderful resource for speculating, Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune, How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen’s England, by Rory Muir. (And thank you to author Cerise Deland for recommending it.)
Given primogeniture laws and practices, a younger son was generally dependent on the heir’s largesse. He might, if he was lucky, have received a small inheritance which he could invest for an income of approximately five percent. And he could pursue a career. Muir’s book has chapters on a gentleman’s options: the Church, medicine, the law, banking and commerce, the military etc. For Austen fans, there’s quite a lot of discussion of the Austen brothers and their career choices.
How much is enough for a respectable household?
Muir gives an example of the Dashwood’s in Sense and Sensibility. On an income of five hundred pounds a year, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, having been booted out by the late Mr. Dashwood’s heir, live very modestly. A bachelor could maintain gentlemanly standards on that salary, but supporting a wife and the inevitable children to follow would be another matter.
Back to Mr. Wickham
As a militia officer, Wickham would receive a per diem. When he goes into the regular army at the end of P. and P. he receives a salary. But given his and Lydia’s frivolous ways, he would have needed another source of income.
Which leads me to another resource, The Life of a British Officer, an online class offered by Regency Fiction Writers and presented by author Bill Haggart. (Bill will be publishing this information in book format and a future date, and I’ll be sure to feature his book here.)
Being a British officer during that era was an expensive undertaking. While the prevailing wisdom says that all commissions had to be purchased, during the Regency wartime period, only twenty percent of commissions were purchased. Which makes sense when losses in battle required replacement leaders.
The salaries provided weren’t enough to cover the purchase of uniforms and equipment for an officer heading off on campaign: clothing, boots, sword, pistols, horse with saddle and bridle, mule, shaving kit, linens, dishes, utensils, canteens, writing case, spyglass. If you recall, Richard Sharpe was given his uniform.
With military promotion came more expenses. Generals with staff officers had to pay part of their officer’s salaries. A man would need to have another source of income or be independently wealthy.
Bill covered so much more in this class–I hope his book comes out soon!
Back to Mr. Darcy’s gift…
What rank was Wickham? I can’t remember, but for the regular infantry, purchase of a Lieutenant’s commission was 550 pounds in 1811. For a Captain, it was 1500 pounds. Would Mr. Darcy have thrown in another 5000 pounds for Lydia’s dowry, for an additional investment income of about 250 pounds?
What do you think? I know there are Austen fans who are MUCH more knowledgeable than I am. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’ll leave you here with a 19th century print of Lydia flirting with the militia.
Images: Amazon (book cover), Wikimedia Commons