Social Classes, Money, and Servants
in Austen’s Society

copyright 2007 by Tracy Marks
Tracy Marks teaches Jane Austen courses in Lexington, Massachusetts


Aristocrats (titled), upper gentry, lower gentry (pseudo-gentry), tradespeople, lower class.

Social rank depends upon family background, genteel upbringing, and wealth.

A new class of “nouveau riche” who made money in trade are now becoming gentry.

Aristocrats and upper gentry aspired to be accepted by the “ton” – high society in London.

Darcy’s mother was a Lady, but he could not inherit a title. He is upper gentry with high status “old” family background and wealth (bordering on aristocracy).

The Bennets are lower gentry, or  pseudo-gentry” since they don’t own their land or house, and their income depends entirely on one breadwinner. They will drop to lower class after Mr. Bennet dies unless their daughters marry into wealth. Mr. Bennet’s inheritance was entailed – not passed directly to him but passed on from generation to generation only through male heirs. Since he has no sons, it will pass to the closest male heir – Mr. Collins.

Mr. Bingley is “nouveau riche” upper gentry, soon to become a landowner. The Bingleys inherited money made in trade in northern England – probably the Yorkshire cotton mills. Miss Bingley’s snobbery is an attempt to deny her lower respectability as as a result of her family’s background in trade. She is eager for her brother to purchase an estate and become landed gentry.

Mr. Collins (like Jane Austen’s father) would be considered lower gentry or “pseudo-gentry” since his income is not dependent upon land.



1 pound = $98 today

total funds

in pounds

total funds

in dollars

yearly income

(4% interest)

yearly income

in dollars

servants one

could afford*

The Bennets



2,000 pounds



Elizabeth Bennet



40 pounds



Mr. Bingley





12 – 20***

Miss Bingley











24 - 48***

Georgiana Darcy






Mr. Wickham



450 + 100



Miss King






The 5 Dashwoods



2,000 pounds



John Dashwood





12 – 20***

Edward Ferrars



10–850 (varies)

$9,800 -$83,500

1 - 6







Miss Grey






Colonel Brandon






Elinor & husband






Austens pre 1805






Austens 1805-17







*not taking into account money for dowries, carriages (with 4 horses, requiring a yearly income of at least 1000 pounds), and maintenance of house, grounds, farm. Note also that servants are provided room and board, and in receive hand-me-down clothes, medical care etc. so their salaries are very small.
** The Bennet family has 3 - 4  female house servants, 2 - 3 manservants, stableboy, bailiff and farmhands.

***Wealthy landowners would have many additional expenses related to maintaining lands and grounds, and their public responsibilities to help tenants and local community. Having a house in London for the season

requires an income of at least 4,000 pounds a year. Bingley will also purchase rather than rent an estate.


When the Reverend Austen was alive and working as a clergyman at the Steventon rectory, the family lived on 900 pounds. When he died, Mrs. Austen, Jane and Cassandra were reduced to an income of 210 pounds, and compelled to live with relatives until they rented inexpensive lodging in Bath, with one servant. Neither Jane or Cassandra had  money for dowries, and each had an allowance of 20 pounds ($1960 year today), spent primarily on fabrics for making clothes, accessories and transportation.


When Edward inherited Chawton Estate and provided them with Chawton cottage, he also helped them financially; after 1809, their income increased to 450-500 pounds per year. Although Jane financed her first book, Sense and Sensibility, herself, with the help of brother Henry (who later went bankrupt), by the time she died in 1817, she had begun to earn substantial royalties. Her will specified that she had 910 pounds ($89,000 today) to leave to her surviving relatives.


1 pound = 20 shillings = 49 pounds today = $98 today

1 guinea = 21 shillings = 51.5 pounds today = $103 today
1 pound = 240 pence                   1 shilling = 12 pence

1 shilling = $4.90 today              1 pence = 41 cents today


Most country homes are relatively self-sufficient in regard to providing the food consumed by families. Think of servants as substitutes for labor-saving devices or modern conveniences – including most items which we buy ready-made in shops today including clothes.


Indoor servants draw water, help their masters and mistresses dress, do ladies hair, make candles for lighting, maintain all fireplaces for heat, maintain the ovens for cooking, pick vegetables and fruits from the gardens, cook food from scratch, serve food, make preserves and home remedies, wash dishes, make and mend clothes, clean house and floors, make soap, do laundry by hand, make/repair furniture, run errands, deliver messages, announce visitors, help tend the ill. Outdoor servants drive carriages, feed and care for horses and livestock, plant crops, maintain the grounds and kitchen gardens, and much more.


The primary female servants would be: housekeeper, cook, ladiesmaid, 1 or 2 housemaids, nurserymaid, and scullery maid. The primary male servants would be: butler, personal manservant, groom, gardeners, coachmen, footmen, bailiff, and farmhands (for wealthy landowners: steward, bailiffs, woodwards, gamekeepers, parkkeepers, huntsmen and more). The gentry living in genteel poverty on an income of only 250 pounds ($24,500/year today) would have a maid-of-all-works and one manservant.

Gentry Women and Men
copyright 2007 by Tracy Marks  


Marriage was a business proposition, and the dowry of a woman was the most important determinant of her marriageability, since her husband would support her and provide servants to do most of the childrearing and household tasks. Think of the dowry as the equivalent of the total working income women would contribute to their family throughout the course of their marriage. The separation we experience between private life and public life, between business and personal affairs, did not exist for the gentry and aristocracy.

The average age for a young woman to marry was 22. An unmarried woman was considered unmarriageable and deemed a spinster by the time she was 30. If she had no wealth of her own, her only options were:

1) Be supported by and live with brother and his wife, sometimes against their will.
2) Work everyday as a ladies’ companion, governess, or teacher on minimal salary (such as 10 pounds
a year), living in genteel poverty, totally dependent upon employers, and with little personal life.

MEN: The eldest son inherited his father’s estate; younger sons inherited little, and were usually compelled to marry into wealth and/or earn their own living. The only respectable occupations open to them were: a) officer in the army (and to a lesser extent, the navy), for which they had to purchase an officer’s commission; b) London lawyer (country lawyers were not respectable); c) the clergy (not lucrative, required finding a patron to bestow a “living”). Although beginning in the late 18th century, marrying for love became nearly as important to many men and women as marrying for money, men who were not eldest sons of wealthy landowners generally sought to marry women with substantial dowries. Men tended to marry between the ages of 27-30.



supervise housekeeper, cook

and all other servants

aid husband

noblesse oblige – charity work

involving meetings with clergy

plan meals

be a hostess to guests

run home farm, kitchen garden

create and maintain recipes

maintain local social connections

through regular visits

make and dispense medicines and herbal remedies

make and bottle preserves

maintain dress and fashion; dress daily for dinner etc.

shop for fabrics, household goods, furniture

decorate home

sew, mend, knit, embroider

some care for her children

manage home renovations

entertain on piano, sing

some teaching of her children

manage all domestic accounts,

inventorying all supplies

practice piano and singing, drawing, and “feminine arts”

conduct daily correspondence

keep everything in place

master all dances

make appearances in London during the “season”




GENTRY MEN’S WORK and RESPONSIBILITIES:        *wealthy landowners

supervise “upper” servants

assist friends and neighbors

consult daily with his steward*

take interest in lives of staff

maintain community relations

bestow church livings*

be host to male guests – riding, fox hunting etc.

maintain ties with other landowners

advise tenant farmers*

handle all house improvements

maintain dress and fashion; dress daily for dinner etc.

maintain tenants’ cottages*

handle landscaping improvements

master all dances

host regular events/feasts for tenants, staff and charity fairs*

supervise farm, timber, livestock

maintain skill in riding, hunting

serve as local magistrate*

support/help poorer relations

help in educating sons

run local government* (optional)

conduct business correspondence

teach sons to hunt, fish, ride

serve in Parliament* (optional)

consult with business manager

regarding finances, investments

make appearances in London during the “season”

maintain political power, including dictating votes of tenants etc.*

Daily Life, Fashion and Courtship

copyright 2007 by Tracy Marks


Daily Life


Breakfast was generally served at 10am. Lunch, called nuncheon was an optional informal meal, generally a snack, served at about
1-2pm The main meal of the day was dinner, served at about 4-5pm in the country, 6-8pm in London; the gentry always dressed for dinner. At formal balls, a later supper would be served at 11pm or midnight. Meals were generally several courses, with all the food piled at the center of the table, including meats, vegetables and desserts.

Women generally attended to several of their daily tasks before breakfast. The time period between 11am – 3pm was considered morning, and devoted to correspondence and visiting (conducted while sewing, embroidering etc.) although also used for daily tasks. Often in the evening after dinner, informal evening parties were held with music and dancing. Families also spent considerable time in conversation, reading aloud, and sometimes playing cards and performing theatricals,


was the shopping mecca, although larger towns had shops, and many villages. Families bought only the food they could not produce on their farms. Women mended and embroidered their own clothes and the clothes of their male relatives. Fabric and clothing were expensive; women bought fabric at the linen-drapers and made their own clothes at home (with the help of servants) or hired mantua-makers or dressmakers. The wealthy might purchase ready-made gowns at London shops, then have them fitted, and embroider the trimming (and their many accessories) themselves.

Regency Fashion
Dresswear: White ruffled shirts, high stiff collars, dark long tailcoats (cut short in front), white cravat, knee breeches, stockings, black buckled pumps. In the daytime, they frequently wore tall hats and Hessian boots.

LADIES: High-waisted low-cut empire dresses (muslin, gauze, crepe, silk, sarsenet, satin), in pastel colors, with short puffed sleeves and short jackets, corsets which lifted up their breasts, petticoats. Daywear: Light muslin dresses decorated with their needlework, with chemises underneath.

Courtship And Dance

A young woman had her official “coming out” around age 17 – at which time her family threw a party or ball in her honor, and she was allowed to attend “adult” social gatherings. If in London, she was then eligible to take part in the gala life of the “Season” (mid April – mid June) when everyone seeking a marriage partner, aspiring to a higher social status, or attempting to maintain their status made appearances at the right balls, clubs, and social gatherings. Young women were not allowed to be alone with men in private, except old family friends, without a chaperone, although they frequently found ways to meet each other secretly on country walks etc. Touching was not acceptable, except when dancing; a kiss indicated intent to marry.

Ladies and gentlemen were taught to dance from an early age, and often had dancing masters to help the maintain their skill at the various intricate dancing forms. Most dances were “longways” country dances conducted in two lines of gentlemen and ladies; some such as the boulanger, quadrille and cotillion involved squares or groups of four or more couples. One of the popular forms of entertainment for young people was balls, usually held at least once a month in Assembly Rooms in most country villages. Older attendees played cards and conversed in card rooms while the younger people (with chaperones nearby) talked and danced. Each dance “set” consisted of two dances, of about 15 minute each. Rules of etiquette were strictly observed. A gentleman was not  supposed to dance with a woman more than twice unless he was intent upon marrying her; he was also expected to attend to the wallflowers, and make sure that all ladies danced a few times. A lady was expected to accept all men who asked for a dance; if she refused a man, she could not dance the rest of the evening.


Etiquette in Georgian and Regency Times

copyright 2007 by Tracy Marks 



1)  The eldest daughter is called “Miss” followed by her surname, such as “Miss Bennet.” The other daughters are called “Miss” followed by their first name then surname, such as “Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” Once the eldest is married, the next in line may be called “Miss” followed by surname.

2)  Only relatives and friends of long-standing acquaintance may call each other by their first names. (In S&S, Elinor and Marianne can call Edward by his first name since he is related by marriage. Willoughby’s calling Marianne by her first name is a questionable intimacy).

3)  Men friends address each other by last names, but may use first names for closest friends.

4)  Husbands and wives of the older generation call each other Mr. and Mrs. but the younger generation is beginning to dispense with this custom and use first names. (In P&P, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet do not call each other by their first name.)

5)  Ladies of title are addressed as “Your Ladyship.”



6)  A gentleman may not greet a lady in public unless she acknowledges him first.

7)  No acquaintance of equal or higher rank may begin without a formal introduction by a suitable third party (Thus in  P&P,  Mr. Collins’ introducing himself to Darcy is a breach of etiquette).

8)  Women curtsy and men bow when formally introduced.

9)  Once introduced, you must acknowledge the presence of the other person in public. If you do not do so, you are “cutting” the other person – excluding them from your social network and revealing that you no longer view them as worthy of respect. (In P&P, Wickham only minimally acknowledges Darcy when they meet again in Longbourn).

10) A lady does not volunteer shaking hands with a gentlemen. Gentleman shake hands.


11)  Higher ranking persons must initially call upon lower ranking persons, not the reverse.

12)  Residents of a neighborhood may initially call upon new neighbors. (Thus in P&P, Mr.   Bennet must call upon Mr. Bingley in order to begin the acquaintance).

13)  You make “morning calls” only between 11am – 3pm, and generally for not more than half an    hour unless asked to stay longer. If the person you are visiting is not at home, you leave your     card. You always returns a morning call shortly afterwards, generally within a week. (In P&P,     Miss Bingley’s taking two weeks to return Jane’s call in London is a sign of disrespect).

14)  A lady may not call upon a married man (Marianne in S&S may not call upon  Willoughby).


15) An unmarried lady may not write and send letters to a male acquaintance unless she is engaged  to him (In P&P, Darcy therefore delivers his letter in Elizabeth in person. However, in S&S,  Marianne writes Willoughby, leading Elinor to believe they are engaged).

16)  Married women have higher status than single women and are treated accordingly.

17)  You do not speak of private matters in front of servants.

18)  Well-bred men and women are polite, graceful, considerate, speak softly, do not boast, and do  not intrude their presence upon others. (Mrs. Bennet in P&P and Mrs. Jennings in S&S are not  well-bred).


Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women (late 18th century)

Gregory, A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters (late 18th century)

A Lady of Distinction, The Mirror of the Graces (1811)

Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman (17th century)
     Braithwait, English Gentlemen (17th century)