Either money or madness is set at the center of nearly every mystery novel—and of course money itself can be a kind of madness.
The Victorians knew as much. Think of the eponymous miser of Silas Marner by George Eliot, the insanities that cluster around Wilkie Collins’s moonstone, or the crazed but calculating greed of Ebenezer Scrooge, which is only undone by ghostly visitations – or hallucinations, depending how you read the story.
The Victorians viewed money differently than we do, for instance, most families spent the enormous majority of their resources on food – one of the facts that makes it difficult to calculate exact equivalencies between money in their time and our own.
So what could a shilling buy, or a pound, or a thousand pounds? In my very first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, one of the suspects is described as being among the few richest commoners in England. A little research uncovered a useful fact: to be in that bracket of the two or three dozen richest men in England, he would have needed an income of more than a hundred thousand pounds a year. That may not immediately sound like a vast fortune, but it was a time, after all, when an average housemaid earned sixteen pounds a year plus room and board, when ninety pounds a year could buy a respectable London life, and five hundred a year an opulent one. Prince Albert, though he was Queen Victoria’s most beloved confidant, had an annual income of just (“just”) thirty thousand pounds a year.
But the details I find most arresting are the small ones. How did the Victorians spend their money? Well, the smallest unit of currency in wide use, a farthing, could buy you three oysters with bread and butter, from a walking oyster-seller; alternatively you could buy a sparrow for the same sum, from one of the east end markets.
This sounds cheap, but I’m guessing you don’t quite understand HOW cheap. There were four farthings in a penny in 1875, twelve pennies in a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound. That means that for a single pound, the price of a Mars Bar in London these days, you could buy 960 sparrows, or 2,880 oysters, presumably with their accompanying bread and butter.
Amazing, right? Now consider this: in the 1860s, twenty minutes with a really excellent prostitute cost 25 pounds, or 72,000 oysters. Dinner in a fine restaurant cost five pounds and five shillings. A silk tophat cost nearly a pound. A double box for life at Her Majesty’s Opera House cost (this is astonishing) 8,000 pounds. Few men could have afforded this of course, though certainly the Duke of Westminster, whose annual income exceeded 250,000 pounds.
As usual, money tells us mostly about class. Those three oysters were an evening meal for many, while the privileged few of the Victorian period were laughably rich. In my new Lenox mystery, An Old Betrayal, I tell the story of an aristocratic family that has lost some of its fortune. Still, while the vast underclass of Britain would have lived on a few shillings a week, even a fallen aristocrat would have unthinkingly spent a pound on a dinner in a restaurant – more than a milkmaid, carrying large jugs in a yoke from her neck from house to house, would have made in a week.
As one looks into Victorian money, the crime of the age seems to come into focus. If a general servant could count on sixteen pounds a year, and knew that her mistress had just spent sixty pounds on a new carriage, or four pounds on one of Thomas Crapper’s new indoor toilets (!), could theft be far behind? If an educated clerk in the city was making a pound a week, ten shillings less than a skilled workman, is it any wonder that Trollope described that life of genteel poverty as nearly hellish? If the lowest maid in the shabbiest house only earned six pounds a year – for back-breaking labor, morning to evening, day after day – wouldn’t the prostitute’s 25 pounds for twenty minutes, or even a fraction of that, have begun to seem tempting?
The truth is that the Victorians were like us in many respects, the first template for our own society – they were bankers and solicitors, fathers and mothers, they had restaurants and plays – but in the crucial matter of money they were still living, in a sense, feudally. The rich could afford insane luxury, and the vast multitudes of poor ate oysters, bread, and butter. Our own age, with its middle class, seems a better bargain. And its lower crimes rate seem certainly understandable.
In 1971, Great Britain finally divided their pound into a hundred little units, a date that I find amazing; all of the teenagers buying the Beatles’ White Album in 1968 handed over shillings and ha’pennies, as if they were buying fruit from a Georgian costermonger. The change was a sensible one, of course, but it took some of the magic of the Victorian era, the gas lamps and horse-drawn broughams, along with it – a last little relic of the age when a farthing could mean supper. One of the manifold ways in which historical fiction brings us happiness is by restoring that sense of the past’s magic to us: its sparrows, its prostitutes, its oysters, its opera boxes, its daily human pulse.
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Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, will be published at the end of January, 2014. Find out more at Facebook or Twitter @charlesfinch