“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In early-19th-century society—an aristocratic world of inherited wealth—marriage occupied center stage. A good spouse was an all-purpose resource: essential for moving up in the world, as for Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, or for sustaining a dynasty, as for the object of her affections, Mr. Darcy.
School and work were not a path to wealth and status—certainly not for women, nor even for men. Elites were indifferent to education and disdained work. The landed gentry in Pride and Prejudice look down on Elizabeth’s working uncle, no matter that he gets his income from “a very respectable line of trade.” The economic facts on the ground supported their antipathy. The highest-paying jobs tended to be in government. But even at the end of the century, an elite English civil servant made just 17.8 times the median wage, and his American counterpart just 7.8 times. Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year from inherited capital was more than 300 times the median wage.