Mr. Darcy Was a Second-Class Citizen - Moorgate Books (2024)

Fitzwilliam Darcy was the handsome, wealthy gentleman who fell in love with the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s mother was confounded and amazed to hear that her daughter would marry a man of fortune, especially as she at first thought Darcy was “a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing, [being] so high and so conceited that there was no enduring him.”1Now envisioning her daughter’s great wealth and status, Mrs. Bennet tells Elizabeth: “How rich and great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! . . . A house in town! Everything that is charming! . . . Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! ’Tis as good as a Lord!”1

Ignoring for the moment Austen’s extravagant use of the exclamation point, which modern writers are advised to use sparingly, a question arises: If Darcy was as good as Lord, and yet not a Lord, what exactly was his status in society of that time?

Darcy Was a Gentleman

In Regency Britain a man gained a sense of his place in society through his birth, property, occupation and social rank.2He knew precisely on which step of the social ladder he stood, and everybody judged his status at a glance by evaluating his clothing and manner of speaking. It was not a perfect system, for a penniless conman might pass himself off as a gentleman by dressing in a form-fitting morning coat worn over pantaloons tucked into tasseled hussar boots. As Douglas Hay and Nicolas Rogers put it: “The line dividing gentlemen from all those below was of critical importance in public and private life.”3

Mr. Darcy Was a Second-Class Citizen - Moorgate Books (1)

Beau Brummell was the arbiter of men’s fashion during the Regency Era (CC public domain Mark 1.0, found on Wikipedia)

Darcy was rightly called a gentleman, being an educated man of good breeding and at all times well dressed, perhaps in the style of the well-known socialite and fashion-setter, Beau Brummell, shown at left. Darcy was a landowner, having inherited Pemberley—a beautiful estate situated in Derbyshire—on his father’s death. He had no occupation: he was not a civil servant, merchant or banker; nor was he a farmer, artisan or shopkeeper. He lived on the income obtained from his estate. Being a gentleman of property made him a desirable marriage partner.

Darcy Was Not a Titled Gentleman

Darcy was not a peer. He was not a duke, marquess, earl, viscount or baron, and therefore had not inherited a title. Nor is there evidence that he was a baronet. Baronets hold a hereditary title, which can pass from father to son, but they are not peers. Beneath baronets in the social order are knights. Sir William Lucas, Charlotte’s father, was originally in trade in the village of Meryton, made a sizable fortune and rose to the knighthood, a fact of which he was immensely proud.1 If Darcy had been knighted, the Bennet family, all of Meryton and even his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, seem unaware ofthe fact, for nobody mentions it—and one would think Mrs. Bennet would winkle the fact out of somebody.

Was Darcy an esquire? There is no evidence that he himself held this honor or that he was the son of a knight or served as a Justice of the Peace. (Click herefor a list of Debrett’s precedence among Gentlemen; scroll down the list to the bottom where “Esquires” and “Gentlemen” can be found.) Regardless, Darcy had no titled rank, but he claimed one important connection: he was the grandson of an earl on his mother’s side.

Darcy’s Status according to the 1801 Census

The first formal study of the population of England, Scotland and Wales was undertaken in 1801. Its findings provide some guidance about Darcy’s status. The average annual income of the 287 families that comprised the peerage in 1801 was £8,000 (Table 1). Thus, Darcy’s annual income of £10,000 slightly exceeded the average income of the nobility.3Moreover, his average annual income was nearly four times greater than that of eminent merchants, a category that likely included industrialists, manufacturers, and importers like the nabobs who achieved immense wealth importing tea from India. In Pride and Prejudice,Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley inherited a fortune of £100,000 from his father, who might very well have been counted as an eminent merchant.

Table 1. Average Annual Income of the Top 1% of thePopulation of Great Britain Recorded in the 1801 Census3-5

[table id=1 /]

By this reckoning, Darcy’s annual income stood alongside the incomes of the Prince Regent’s family and the Duke of Devonshire! Of course, the figures for average annual incomes in Table 1 tell us nothing about the range of incomes whose average equalled £8,000. Thedata, for instance, don’t separate the Royal Family’s income from the income of peers. Thus, if the Royal Family reported an average annual income of, say, £30,000 in 1801, then dozens of families classified as “peers” must have reported an income of £5,000 to £7,000 to achieve an overall average annual income of £8,000. This makes sense, for few among the nobility would have an income close to that achieved by the Royal Family. Considering these figures, Darcy’s annual income was handsome, indeed.

Darcy’s Status and the 1811 Census

The powers behind the 1801 census developed better and more explicit questions for the 1811 census.6-8Table 2 shows the average annual income of the top classes in Great Britain and Ireland in 1811.

Table 2. Average Annual Income of the Royal Families, theNobility and the Gentry Recorded in the 1811 Census6-8

[table id=2 /]

In this analysis, the highest order or First Class in society countedRoyalty in the top tier, of which the families of the King and Prince Regent had average annual incomes exceeding £140,000. The nobility, also counted as First Class, had an average annual income of£10,000.8 The Second Class citizens had incomes even lower, but still sufficient to support a comfortable lifestyle by early 19th-century standards. Not shown in Table 2 are average incomes for the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh (or Lowest) Classes or for members of the Army and Navy, whose average annual income might range from a low of £10 for paupers to £130 for milliners, tailors and mantua-makers and £400 for judges, barristers, attorneys, clerks and the like. Based on this class system, Darcy would have been classified as a Second Class citizen, even though his income was akin to that of the nobility.

Questions about Darcy’s Income

The most interesting aspect of the data in Table 2 is that most gentlemen and ladies living on incomes had an average annual income of £800. Darcy earned more than 12 times as much but was still a Second Class citizen and not a Lord. By what means did he earn so much income? Of course, much of his income would have been derived from Pemberley, but how did he amass a fortune that placed his annual income on par with that of a peer? This question begs another: How good was Jane Austen at estimating a gentleman’s income? Feel free to post answers and suppositions related to these questions.

1Austen J. Pride and Prejudice. Kindle ed. Locations: 19455 (chapter 3), 19497 (chapter 5) and 23987 (chapter 59).
2Porter R. English Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin Books, 1982, p. 48.
3Hay D, Rogers N. Eighteenth-Century English Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 18, 21.
4The 1801 Census(description only). Accessed August 6, 2014.
5A Vision of Britain through Time: 1801 Census(summary table only). Accessed August 6, 2014.
6The 1811 Census. Accessed August 6, 2014.
7A Vision of Britain through Time: 1811 Census. Accessed August 6, 2014.
8Colquhoun P. A Treatise on the Wealth, Power, and Resources of the British Empire, in Every Quarter of the World, including the East Indies: The Rise and Progress of the Funding System Explained. (London, 1814), pp. 106-107 (PDF pp. 124-125), pp. 124-125 (PDF pp. 142-143).

Mr. Darcy Was a Second-Class Citizen - Moorgate Books (2024)
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