Wealth and Literature
Oct 7, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
During the quiet of this season I’ve been inhaling books. My latest read is a departure from my usual 300 page appetite. At a hefty 753 pages, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty feels more like an epic quest! The book is making me recall some of my high-school economic studies and the mental exercise provides a welcome counterpoint to all this indoor time. As I was considering what to write for this week’s feature I found unexpected inspiration when Piketty expanded on a correlation between wealth and literature. Piketty touched on something that I’d noticed but either took for granted or merely overlooked.
Prior to the first world war, monetary standards were fairly stable. For example, the value of a pound in relation to a franc was common knowledge and had remained flat for much of the 18th and 19th century. Authors during this era were able to quickly set the scene by describing a person’s income. For example, Austen’s readers immediately understood Mr. Darcy’s social standing simply by the notation of his £10,000 annual income. It was an era when buying power was almost like a language in and of itself. Mentioning a character’s income or wealth became a handy literary device. Those who appreciate books from this era know it was a common thread for books across the continent. This largely went away after WWI as each country sought different solutions to war-time debt. But I’m intrigued by this observation. I started to consider what these fictional characters might be worth in today’s money and which real-life vintage icons shared a similar financial fate. I invite you to join me in a fun thought exercise and let me know what you think in the comments!
We’ll begin our adventure with the iconic Mr. Darcy. Fitzwilliam Darcy could not be called a master of first impressions. Gruff and aloof, he seemed to bring nothing but dark rain clouds into Elizabeth Bennet’s world. But in time those clouds parted to reveal a sensitive and loyal man. You may say he was the original case of being unfairly typecast. In today’s figures his annual income is on par with James Cagney’s net worth. Cagney, like Darcy, felt he was judged on appearances rather than actions. In his early career he played the quintessential tough guy (In my opinion, The Roaring Twenties is one of his most memorable performances from this era.) But after a decade of playing the gangster he wanted an opportunity to showcase his range and return to his vaudevillian roots. Cagney’s opportunity came with 1942’s production of Yankee Doodle Dandy and his performance earned him an Oscar.
While their financial assets are comparable, what distinguishes Cagney from Darcy is his humble beginnings. Born to Irish parents in New York, Cagney worked a variety of odd jobs during his youth before becoming an actor. Darcy, in contrast, inherited his wealth and position. Yet despite the vast differences in their backgrounds, we can uncover some similarities. For example, both men shared a love of nature. Darcy was a steward of the sprawling Pemberley Estate and Cagney was the gentleman farmer of his own property (first in Martha’s Vineyard and next in New York’s Hudson Valley). Cagney was also a devoted horseman, something that connects him more to Darcy’s era than the glitzy age of Hollywood. Naturally, Elizabeth Bennet and James Cagney would have been an odd pairing. But Cagney often played opposite some strong-willed, beautiful leading ladies so maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. After all, we mustn’t judge a book by its cover!
Next up is Martha Dunstable, that spunky American heiress from Doctor Thorne. What I love most about Martha is how she handled challenging situations with humor. But she was also generous with her time and would converse with everyone at a time when interactions were strictly dictated by class. This made Martha a bit of a rabble-rouser and it makes me smile. So imagine how much I beamed upon learning Martha’s financial twin is none other than Shirley Temple. It’s been said by several historians that Shirley Temple was a beacon of hope to America during one of its darkest moments. Her bouncing curls, warm spirit, and great smile helped people feel included during a period when everything seemed topsy turvy. But what other similarities can we find between these two?
Shirley and Martha both acknowledged their wealth but didn’t let it control their decision making. For Shirley this meant finding new passions in life beyond acting, rather than sitting idle and cultivating her money. For Martha this meant waiting for true love, rather than marrying to grab a title. Both Martha and Shirley have a fortitude about them that’s admirable. Temple ran for public office in 1967, and while she didn’t win, the experience informed her next chapter. Always interested in foreign affairs, she became a delegate to the 24th United Nations General Assembly and later served as ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Temple also championed many causes including multiple sclerosis and the preservation of wildlife. While Martha didn’t have the same leadership opportunities, I could imagine her making some waves on both sides of the pond, couldn’t you?
We’ll conclude with Margaret Hale, another strong female character from North and South. Margaret in a word is headstrong. A natural born advocate, she is guided by an unshakeable moral compass and desire to care for her fellow man and woman. Her financial story is a rollercoaster, not entirely rags to riches, but more along the lines of a gentle curve pointed to the stars. Margaret’s inheritance from Mr. Bell aligns her with none other than Katharine Hepburn (who earned the equivalent of Margaret’s wealth during 1937).
Hepburn was known for playing independent female leads (in fact she would have made a dynamite Hale if given the chance!). Let’s unpack some of the parallels. Katharine valued education and studied at Bryn Mawr College. Where Margaret didn’t have similar opportunities, they both had curious minds and an appreciation for learning. Katharine also adored a brother whose life was mired in tragedy and whose circumstances were kept hidden by the family. Both Margaret and Katharine shared a determination to follow through on their pursuits. For Margaret that meant speaking difficult truths at dinner parties and showing kindness to the less fortunate. For Katharine that meant overcoming a disastrous first gig and staying loyal to her acting dream. Another tie that binds them is a disregard for how society expected them to act. Katharine wore trousers during a time when it was considered taboo. As we see in the opening chapters of North and South, Margaret speaks her mind when boldness was seen as uncouth. Their kinship goes beyond fiscal assets and of all the pairings we’ve discussed this duo is my personal favorite. Tell me dear reader, which fictional and real-life icons would make your list and why?