Could Mr. Bennet have Saved Enough for Decent Fortunes on his Income?



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By Bethany Delleman

I’m not a math person, so when I hear that Mr. Bennet needed to save reasonable fortunes (you know Austen never says dowry?) for his daughters out of an income of £2000 a year, I just don’t get it. So I used a spreadsheet and made compound interest tables, with Mr. Bennet saving either £25, £50, or £100 per girl per year:

(We know that government bonds paid either 4 or 5% interest in Austen’s time, so I did both)

If Mr. Bennet had saved just £50/girl every year, Jane would have nearly £2000 by her 21st birthday. Not Georgiana Darcy, but certainly better than nothing! And this of course would be added to the £1000 she would receive after the death of both parents.

£250 a year saved (£50 for each girl) is only 12.5% of the Bennet’s annual income. Is that reasonable? Well these contemporary lists of expenditures from A System of Practical Domestic Economy (printed in 1823, only a few years away from Pride & Prejudice‘s publication) say yes:

(Thank you for making these available, Susanna Ives)

The above budget works in savings of 10%, not far off what the Bennets would need to put aside for their girls.

Now yes, the above estimate is for a family with only three children and they don’t have a very high clothing budget for the kids. However, it would have been easier to save money when the Bennet girls were young and wearing hand-me-downs than in the present, where all five girls need ball gowns at once. This is part of the overall imprudence in the Bennet family, having all five girls out at once means that you need to dress five up in fancy clothes at the same time!

Another way Mr. Bennet could have saved is to have put the £5000 settled on Mrs. Bennet and the children in a trust and re-invested all the income instead of spending it. What happens then? I used an online compound interest calculator for this one:

(This is done in US dollars but the math is the same)

£14,000 pounds split 5 ways is a fortune of £2,800 by Jane’s 21st birthday. That’s nearly as much as Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey. A respectable fortune indeed!

If the girls did not marry before their father died, they would also have a much higher income to live on together. The income on £14,000 is about £700/year. A bit higher than the Dashwoods in Sense & Sensibility and a whole lot better than the £250/year the Bennet girls would have with only the £5000 settled in the marriage articles.

Now what about this fabled son who would break the entail and make everything better? Here is the problem with that idea. First, the son must be of age (usually 21) before the entail could be broken, so if Lydia was male and Mr. Bennet died when he was sixteen, the entail would be intact. Second, if the Bennet son was something like John Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility, he might well refuse to break the entail and both parties had to agree. Why have a smaller inheritance when you can have the whole pie? I’m sure a wife like Fanny Dashwood would advise against it!

Putting some money aside for his daughters was Mr. Bennet’s responsibility and by never saving anything, he failed them in a big way. Mrs. Bennet also probably overspent, but the real power is always in the husband’s hands.

I find the financial side of Jane Austen’s works very interesting. Money influences many of the character’s actions, especially the villains. My second novel, Unfairly Caught, focuses on Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, who is Jane Austen’s poorest heroine, almost completely dependent on the kindness of her rich uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. When Sir Thomas finds out his eldest son has fallen into debt again, he pressures Fanny into accepting the proposal from Henry Crawford…

13 responses to “Could Mr. Bennet have Saved Enough for Decent Fortunes on his Income?”

  1. Alice McVeigh Avatar

    Clever article, Bethany!! I’m sure SOME parents could have saved like this – but not THESE parents, is where I am with it… It IS in human nature, but not in their natures.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      That’s true. But for me, I can’t even see how it would be possible at all to save that much money. The visual really helps.

  2. Riana Everly Avatar

    Seeing those numbers and charts makes it all very real. We all know how it works the other way – the amount you pay on a mortgage far outstrips the actual amount of the loan – but few people think about using compound interest to save.
    Doesn’t Mr B say that he spends about £100 on Lydia annually, anyway? (When he’s contemplating Mr Gardiner’s letter about the marriage settlement with Wickham.) So, if he limited the ribbons and put half of that amount aside, she’d have a respectable dowry. Interesting!

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      For sure! Especially when the girls were young you would think it would have been easy to save. 4 or 5% interest is a great interest level for saving. We haven’t had that available in my adult lifetime.

      Plus Mr. Bennet never had a mortgage, he inherited his house and land!

  3. Juju Avatar

    I agree, Mr. Bennet could have save for his family if he had applied himself and could have made his property more prosperous. He too wasted money buying books and port. Mrs. Bennet was clueless when it came to money. She married a ‘rich’ man and wanted the lifestyle. The problem was the parents being irresponsible.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      We don’t know exactly where the money went, but they should have been able to save something! They had access to really good interest rates and a great income.

      Makes me even more impressed by the Morlands, those are probably the best parents in Austen (so of course they aren’t really in the book, lol)

  4. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Great article! So different from today!lol Mr Bennet should have been more thrifty.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Yeah, I wish I could live fairly comfortably on the income of 10,000 pounds! The interest rates today aren’t as good as they had access to back then.

  5. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

    THANK YOU! I love this and have done similar calculations in the past. There is no excuse for the Moreland daughters in Northanger Abbey – in a family of 10 on an income but a fraction of Longbourn’s 2000 a year – to have a larger dowry than the Bennet girls, pure laziness on Mr Bennet’s part.
    I love the calculations and graphs in this post, and as a fellow nerd and former Amish woman, it is entirely possible the food expenses of Longbourn could be less than your above source; the estate likely produced the eggs, dairy, poultry, green-grocers, butter, cheese, etc. for the family.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Oh that is true! We don’t have all the information about their lifestyle. This is certainly a rough calculation, but I hope it explains how it could be done.

      I love making graphs about Jane Austen, many are silly but this is a more serious one.

    2. Alexander Backlund Avatar
      Alexander Backlund

      I think it also depends a bit on what level of living the Bennets needed to maintain to keep their social status (very important for their daughters’ marriageability), what was expected.

      1. bdelleman Avatar

        Well yes, but is Mrs. Bennet’s idea of respectability realistic? Sir Walter had a very inflated idea of what was necessary and he went far into debt. Mrs. Bennet is always bragging about how much better her dinners are than the Lucases and they are similar in class.

      2. Alexander Backlund Avatar
        Alexander Backlund

        No doubt, Mrs Bennet was better at spending than saving and would have needed to be a bit more like the thrifty Mrs Norris – but I am sure her dinners were something extra and well worth attending. 🙂

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