Lockdown lessons from a writer fascinated by money.
The pandemic has, in some ways, brought forward the future, with many of us spending more time online than ever before, immersed in the digital revolution.
But living for months in confinement with our nearest and dearest, largely punctuated only by the predictable excitement of an hour’s daily escape for fresh air, has also made me think of myself as one of the best-known closeted females of the past — the characters of Jane Austen.
There’s a lot in her books that we can learn about life under lockdown. And about money. Wealth is such a key theme for the author on our £10 banknotes that some academics write that reading her novels feels like meeting a financial adviser. It’s easy to see why.
For, despite her fame, Austen was worried about making ends meet, or at least in supporting a genteel life. According to documents published by the Bank of England, her third published novel, Mansfield Park, made Austen just £310, or about £20,000 in today’s money.
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This might explain why Austen bombards her readers with figures and with characters who talk openly about finding themselves fortunes. This is different from many Brits today who remain tight-lipped about their finances, even in the face of the common threat now posed by a pandemic that has caused a hit to our pensions, a rise in redundancies and growing youth unemployment.
The interactive investor Great British Retirement Survey 2020, which was conducted during the spring lockdown and involved a sample of more than 12,000 UK adults, found that just under a third (32%) of those in a relationship talk about money with their partner only once a month, or less.
This is unchanged from last year, despite the impact of Covid-19. Perhaps we should learn from Austen’s characters who aren’t afraid to discuss money with family and friends, even over a nice Sunday roast with a prospective suitor.
We need to be more like Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, giving his daughter Elizabeth a forthright lesson on money for a young woman in 1813: “No man in his senses would marry Lydia on so slight a temptation as one hundred a year during my life and fifty after I am gone.
“Wickham’s a fool, if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds.” Or more, Mrs Bennet openly discussing the income of Mr Bingley as “Four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
Keeping track of spending is also important for Austen. Before her departure to Bath, Northanger Abbey heroine Catherine Morland is advised by her mother to keep a strict record of how she spends her allowance of 10 guineas.
Meanwhile, Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility reminds her sister and mother to fit their living circumstances to their budget. Whatever your penchant for penny-pinching lessons from literature, you’re likely to look in disbelief at how you were shelling out money before lockdown. For many, spending on anything other than food has started to feel odd, or at least to need greater consideration.
Lockdown has led to a new generation putting cash towards their long-term futures — investment platforms such as interactive investor have seen an increase in younger investors.
If I had to pick an Austen character with the best temperament to manage my investments, I’d choose Elizabeth Bennet. She learns from her mistakes — admitting that she was wrong about potential husbands Wickham and Darcy.
She likes to read — to the point of rereading Darcy’s letter and keeping herself open to a different opinion of him. She doesn’t let a precarious financial position lead her to make the mistake of marrying Mr Collins.
I think that Elizabeth would cope well with a volatile year like 2020 in the stock market, would not stick stubbornly to her original investments, and would not be influenced too much by her emotions. I can see her, after much reading, recognising the benefits of a regular monthly investment plan.
Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility would be my worst investor — unable to control her emotions, she would buy at the worst time in the markets. I can see her putting her last penny into an investment on the word of her love interest Willoughby and being left destitute.
Meanwhile, if I had to take financial advice from a character in the novels, Mr Knightley in Emma seems a good candidate for his good judgment and high moral character. He looks after his tenant farmers, gives apples to poor Miss Bates and steps in to dance with Harriet Smith when she is snubbed.
While he keeps “no horses” and has “little spare money”, I’d like to think he knows enough about managing wealth to put his clients into well-planned balanced portfolios while dishing out pithy advice such as: “Business, you know, may bring you money, but friendship hardly ever does.”
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It would be tempting to speak to Mr Darcy, Austen’s wealthiest character with £10,000 a year, about investments. But although he is often “liberal and generous”, and prone to “give his money freely, to display hospitality”, it would be hard to take ethical investing advice from him. Darcy’s vast fortune and family home Pemberley unfortunately most likely came from slave trade profits.
As for a tax accountant, could ridiculous Mr Collins have the right attention to detail? When he proposes to Elizabeth Bennett, Mr Collins says that her tiny fortune of £1,000 can only be invested at the low rate of 4%, meaning an income of only £40 a year.
He also carefully tots up the chimney piece in the grand house of his patroness Lady Catherine De Bourgh as worth £800, or about £50,000 in today’s money.
But we should also be grateful for what’s changed in a lockdown world since Austen’s day. While the Bennet girls made their own clothes as they talked about chasing rich prospective husbands, many modern women (and men) have used their time in lockdown to develop an income-generating side hustle, and invest surplus money to build a nest egg.
It may not have the same potential for costume drama as embroidery in the morning room but it is surely more useful, more profitable and more challenging.
This article was written for the Financial Times and published there on 20 November 2020.
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