From time to time in literature, direct references are made to money. It might be a sesterce or a half-a-crown, a dinar or a livre. Having a sense of the value of these foreign amounts has always been difficult. For this reason, old Greek and Latin textbooks would translate the amounts into modern dollar equivalents. So we might learn that Cicero bought a house for the sum of three thousand dollars (in 1845 money), which at one point communicated something; but now it simply does not. The note gets outdated just as the original reference it attempts to explain.
There is no perfect answer to this problem, but there is a satisfactory one. All monetary amounts should be expressed, in academic notes, with reference to their value in gold. Of course vast amounts of gold have been discovered since the ancient days, which might indicate a cheapening of gold’s value, but it appears to have been offset by gains in the demand for gold created by a much larger population. The value of gold fluctuates, of course, like all commodities; but its long-term value is more stable than almost any other. The result is that a bag of gold, which was worth a tremendous amount two thousand or a thousand years ago, is still worth a tremendous amount now.
Calculating monetary figures back to a gold standard would provide a relatively stable way of describing and comparing value across time.
Let us take, for example, Mr. Darcy. He has £10,000 per annum. We know that this is fabulous wealth; but just how wealthy is he? In 2010 it is two dollars for every pound, but we know he makes a lot more than $20,000 a year.
I have done rough calculations, not having precise figures before me, but let us test our conclusions just for method: in 1816 the British government standardized the gold value of their coinage. This is a bit late for Mr. Darcy, but the 1816 values must have been close to Mr. Darcy’s, and they are delightfully easy to ascertain. At that time a sovereign, the one-pound coin of England, was pegged at 113 grains of gold, just shy of ¼ ounce (which is 120 grains). In terms of bullion coin, it would be called a quarter-ounce. But let us stick with the numbers we have. The value of gold in 2010 dollars is approximately $1150 to the ounce, or $2.40 per grain. A sovereign’s 113 grains, then, comes out to $271. £10,000 per annum becomes 10,000 x 271 = $2,710,000 per year. This seems about right. Mr. Darcy has somewhere around the yearly income of your average major league baseball player; which is all the more impressive, because he does not have to work for it and is merely drawing the profit off of a much larger capital sum. And $2.7 million per year definitely sounds like enough for Mrs. Bennett to be very impressed, and for Mr. Darcy to be profoundly untroubled by financial concerns. He probably would not be comfortable giving Mr. Wickham and Lydia Bennett a lifetime pension (a lifetime pension! imagine being able to offer that – and to in-laws you don’t even like!) without investment income of this order of magnitude.
The above dollar calculations will be valueless in twenty years, and indeed would have looked very different even in the last presidential administration. What would be desired is scholars’ determination, and insertion into the notes, of the value of a grain of gold in the currency unit in question. Given this information, future teachers and students will be able to discuss, within reasonable limits of precision (no standard of comparison will be completely accurate), the monetary scale operating in a given work.
While economic values will still remain hard to translate across centuries and countries, this simple standard does seem to give a realistic sense of many financial amounts to be encountered in literature. A penny was 1/240th of a pound; hence more than a dollar of today’s money. Hence it was possible to live for a penny a day, or even a half-penny, amounts which seem absolutely ludicrous to us today when we read them. In global terms, a dollar a day is a fair definition of the poverty line, the kind of poverty that the Western nations no longer have, but used to. Similarly an income of £40 per year was definitely modest (not quite $11,000), but enough to manage in the only partially industrialized world of England, just as it would be enough today in most countries of the world.