This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors blog on 29 June 2021. Enjoy!
It seems to be a common assumption that Mr. Bennet was not well off. His daughters’ dowries were small and Ms Austen left me with the impression he was just scraping by, but are these widely held beliefs correct? Let’s take a look at the facts:
While we are never informed of the size of Longbourn, it is possible to make some educated guesses, based on his annual income of £2,000. This would probably have come from more than the rent derived from the tenants crop production, although that would have been growing due to changes in land management that greatly increased yields and the quality of the harvest. The introduction of equipment such as the seed drill, invented by Jethro Tull (minus the flute, although he was ‘Living in the Past’, and it is a great song, lol. I tried, but couldn’t find a way to insert a reference to ‘Locomotive Breath’, so I’ll settle for this), enabled higher crop yields due to straighter, more uniformly planted crop rows, and precise seed placement. Gone were the days of the tenant sowing crops by flinging the seeds to germinate wherever they landed. Mr. Tull was also a proponent of using the mechanical hoe, which meant that tenant farmers could protect their higher yields with a machine that killed the weeds threatening their crops.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, the estate owners enclosed their tenants’ plots with hedges, or fences of stone or wood. The practice was initially opposed by the poorer farmers because it interfered with the way things had been done for generations, and negatively affected their income. For the estate owners there were numerous advantages, chief among them being the protection barriers gave against weed infestations from neighboring plots, and keeping livestock or other intruders out of the planted fields.
Crop rotation was introduced, which meant that fields didn’t need to lay fallow every second year to regenerate. With proper cycling, what was depleted by one crop could be replaced by the next year’s planting, and so on down the line. This again increased yields, which had the added benefit of higher tenant earnings. It was not uncommon to have a tenant’s sons and daughters well educated, which in turn increased their standard of living. When the tenant passed away or retired, his son would commonly take over the farming of the lease, having inherited it from his father.
A note of clarification, in case anyone misinterpreted my previous sentence. A tenant’s sons could not inherit the land their father farmed, but they could inherit the lease on the land. The practice was beneficial for both the estate owner and the tenant. The master of the estate had continuity in the management of his fields, and the families had the security of knowing they would not be thrown out on their ear should the father or husband pass away.
Livestock was another area that saw higher yields. With better land management and bigger harvests, land could be set aside for pasture, meaning estates were able to increase the size of their herds. As different crops were planted, the livestock could be turned out onto the harvested fields to graze. Animal husbandry, when it came to cattle, also progressed as the estates kept more animals. The larger herds enabled another source of income as pork, and beef especially, was offered for sale at lower prices and in greater commodities.
Timber harvesting and selling, as well as mining, was another source of revenue. Even though railroads were a few years in the future, a growing system of canals aided in shipping commodities to cities and markets a good distance away.
With all of these income sources, was Mr. Bennet poor, barely scraping by on his meager £2,000? According to the 1801 census, the top 6000 esquires, which is the class Mr. Bennet belonged to, averaged £1,500 per year, so his income was actually above average! Methinks (far-be-it from me to avoid an esoteric reference to Shakespeare. I have some class, although how much is debatable) the lack of dowries and other financial constraints alluded to in the book were a result of poor planning on his part, which he makes reference to in discussing the lack of dowries, or Mrs. Bennet’s mismanagement of her pin money and constant harping at her husband for more. She strikes me as the type of person who would spend like a drunken sailor as soon as the money hit her hand, and he seems to be a man who might have a difficult time reigning in his wife’s bad habits.
So to answer my original question, was Mr. Bennet a poor man? In my opinion, any poverty he and his family might have suffered was probably self-induced.
Slides from The Agricultural Revolution European Expansion 1650-1850 Chapter One https://slidetodoc.com/the-agricultural-revolution-european-expansion-1650-1850-chapter/