Money in classic novels confuses me. When I am reading something — generally Victorian literature — I tend to tell myself in regards to money: It was a long time ago; the value of money was different. From many readings of Jane Eyre, I can tell you that her salary was £30 and that was about average for a governess. Jane’s eventual inheritance of £20,000 could provide a lifetime of easy living.
But what was the true value of money? What could it really purchase? When they leave Ruth in Wales, Henry and Mrs Bellingham give her £50, which they consider as treating her “handsomely”. But what did it mean to have that much money? How could Ruth use it and how far would it go?
Katherine has already prepared a wonderful guide to the basics of Victorian currency. You can find the full guide here. Below are some of the most familiar currency terms and what they mean.
Common abbreviations for monetary terms are pound (£), shilling (s), and pence (d).
1 guinea = £1, 1 s.
£1 = 20 s = 240 d
sovereign = 20 shilling coin ~ equal to £1
1 s = 12 p = also called a ‘bob’
crown = 5 s
twopence (tupence) = 2 d
farthing = 1/4 pence ~ .25 d
The modern-day equivalent of £50, according to the National Archives, is around £2926. It is certainly a considerable sum.
But though we understand that it is a large amount, how can we discover more about the value of what money could buy in Victorian times? To answer this question, I turned to Lee Jackson’s fantastic blog about Victorian London. He has prepared a very informative note that tells about the wages and living expenses of London workers (and other classes, too).
First, how does the £50 compare to the wages Ruth might have made had she been able to keep working as a seamstress? A skilled seamstress working in a shop like Mrs Mason’s would expect about 7 to 8s. per week. When we see Ruth at the beginning of the story, she has not yet moved into the “skilled” category. She is scolded constantly for her sloppy work. So, giving her the benefit of the doubt, she might earn 7s. per week or a little over £18 for the year. £50, therefore, represented almost 3 years’ salary!
If she developed her skills and was able to acquire work for the best houses in the town, she might be able to make 22-26s per week or about £57 per year.
But it is important to remember that wages often depended on how much business the house was able to take in. if there was no work to be done, the mistress could not pay her workers. It was also regular for the seamstress to pay for the materials up front and charge the customer once the garment was completed.
Household expenses varied by the membership of the household. A respectable family in “good society” could live well on £800-1000 per year. This budget would cover money for good clothes, proper education, horses and livery, a few maid-servants, coal and wood for heating the house properly, medical care, and some extra for entertainment.
A clergyman with a benefice — as we assume Mr Benson probably has — could live on £300-400 per year. With a benefice, a clergyman lived in the parish rent-free, usually occupying a small house and gardens close to the church. He would not have the same expenses as the house in “good society”.
We can see how there could be large gaps in living expenses based on where you lived (even upon which part of a city you lived in) and what kind of a lifestyle you kept up. By Chapter 10, Ruth doesn’t truly understand the value of her £50 pay-off from Henry. But will she learn?
Featured Painting: The Rich Spendthrift, by Josef Danhauser (1836)