Why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy. Nor can your daughter.

Summary: America’s social structure changes slowly and unnoticed, taking us to a future with the class system of the past. Jane Austin would understand this New America, and her books might even describe our children’s lives. Unless we take back the reins of America.

"Why does Mr Darcy keep staring at me?"
“Why does Mr Darcy keep staring at me?”



  1. Back to the future for New America.
  2. Conclusions.
  3. How rich was Mr. Darcy?
  4. For More Information.
  5. Choices for Elizabeth in the 21st century: working poor or mistress?


(1) Back to the future for America

A common objection in the comments to descriptions of social change is that “this is nothing new”. Quite so, new things are extraordinarily rare in human society (e.g., nukes). History is much like the meals in my home: although the inventory in our well-stocked kitchen seldom change, the meals vary due to the ingredients used, their relative proportions, and their preparation.

Society’s vary in a similar way, with the wide variation in societies resulting from the basic human stock combined and prepared in different ways. This allows us to draw comparisons with the past to better predict the effects of our society’s evolution.

Last week I described one such change: how the increased concentration of wealth had created an aristocracy in America, a national class with stronger ties to each other than the elites of their communities. This class then use their increased power to restructure our social institutions to more closely reflect the shape of this New America, subjecting local institutions to centralized control — turning grassroots leaders into functionaries.

Our economic structure regresses to that of the Gilded Age (e.g., crushed unions, shrinking middle class, precarious prosperity of blue collar workers). Similarly the social structure of New America’s aristocracy and gentry echos that of Georgian England, in which marriage customs further concentrated wealth, and social divisions widened to match those of wealth.

To see a possible future from these trends read this excerpt from “Why Darcy would not have married Elizabeth Bennet” a review by Linda Colley of The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery in the London Review of Books, 3 September 1998:


“As Vickery points out … just as Jane Austen does, that the lesser gentry, urban professionals, successful manufacturers, even the superior ‘trades’, regularly appeared at the same social events, met each other on the commissions of peace, and intermarried. … {their} menfolk played a vital part in local administration, as Justices of the Peace, as militia officers, sometimes as deputy lieutenants. National government, however, was a different matter….

“{Her} prime gentry heroine …is shown moving among a wide array of lesser landed, trading and professional acquaintances. But she was ‘not on visiting terms with noble families, not even with the holders of lesser titles’. Yet it was precisely this more exalted sector which commanded the majority of Parliamentary seats, places at court, positions in the Cabinet.

“It was this split in function within the landed classes that helped to nourish Christopher Wyvill’s economical reform movement in the 1770s … Here, as on other occasions, lesser gentry combined with mercantile dissidents in a critique of the 18th-century state because, at the centre, the former were conscious of not being synonymous with the governing class.

“… this point was fully understood by Austen. She took it for granted that her contemporaries would appreciate (as late 20th-century readers sometimes do not) the extent to which Pride and Prejudice was a deliberate essay in fantasy. An Eliza Bennet, fetching daughter of a small country gentleman, niece to a Cheapside attorney, might well be invited to a one-off county ball given by a Mr Bingley with a rented house and £5000 per annum. But a Mr Darcy with an inherited landed estate of £10,000 per annum would have been most unlikely to seek her hand for a dance, much less for marriage. Indeed, real-life Darcys would scarcely have wasted their precious bachelor youth on rural Hertfordshire. London, with its indulgences, its political life and its marriage market offering more eligible future wives even than Miss Bingley, would have been the automatic draw.”

These classes were broken over several generations by economic changes created by the industrial revolution. Unfortunately the phases of the current technological revolution appear to be having the reverse effect, further concentrating wealth and power. For details see The coming big inequality. Was Marx just early? and How do we respond to the Robot Revolution?

On another day we’ll discuss another aspect of New America’s class-based structure: no longer equal justice for all, but separate systems of High, Middle, and Low justice. That’s already here, although not yet codified. Perhaps soon the Supreme Court will rule this was the Founder’s original intent.

(2) Conclusion

We need not be victims or passive objects of these changes. Standing together, organized and thinking, we can harness these social, economic, political, and technological forces to build a better Republic. It requires only will and work, risking much to gain more.

(3) How rich was Mr. Darcy?

According to “The Economics of Jane Austin“, in 1803 there were 287 Peers, who had an average income of 8,000 pounds per year. Mr. Darcy, who was not a peer, had an income of 10 thousand pounds per year. The first census of Britain in 1801 counted a population of 10.5 million. Mr. Darcy was one of the 0.1%.

(4) For More Information

I strongly recommend watching the BBC miniseries version. It’s almost as good as the book. Even better is the The Annotated Pride and Prejudice. The photos here are from the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice” (1995). The photo of Jennifer Ehle is from the Everett Collection/Rex USA (551159AY).

For the big picture see all posts about Inequality and Social Mobility. What to do about it? See America – how can we stop the quiet coup now in progress. You can start with Ugly truths about income inequality in America, which no politician dares to say, and Glimpses of the New America being born now,

(5)  21st century choices for Miss Bennet: working poor or mistress?

If you don’t like Mr Darcy, Wal-Mart is hiring. This gives the poor Elizabeth’s of today much the same choices Miss Bennet had in 1810. The more things change, the more they stay the same — if we let them.

Darcy & Bennet

20 thoughts on “Why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy. Nor can your daughter.”

  1. Christine Schwartz has estimated that up to 20-35% of rise in American economic inequality post 1960 is due to “assortative marriage” – i.e., the rich marrying the rich and the poor marrying the poor. See here:


    I think it is important to understand is why this is happening. The rich do not see themselves as marrying other rich people – they see themselves as marrying other smart people. More and more this is pretty much the same thing. The smartest are the richest and the poorest have the smallest IQs, and those up top want nothing to do with those ‘ignorant’ folks at the bottom.

    I discussed this with more depth in my recent essay, “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream.” The Scholar’s Stage. 1 July 2013.

    1. Greer,

      Agreed, there is much evidence that associative marriage has become a major factor in the development of our class structure. But then, burning the bridges of social mobility should produce that result, so this is no surprise.

      “The rich do not see themselves as marrying other rich people – they see themselves as marrying other smart people.”

      Can you cite some evidence supporting that? It seems unlikely to me. There’s no mention of it intelligence or IQ in the report you cited.

      1. Greer,

        Follow-up note about drivers of associative marriage.

        The report you cite describes several drivers of associative marriage. Note are related to intelligence, real or perceived. Most are results of decreased social mobility:

        (1) Men selecting for high-income women, just as women have historically selected for high-income men.

        (2) Geography: greater neighborhood segregation by income. Perhaps due to rising home prices (which might result in part from effects of monetary policy on asset prices).

        (3) Workplace segregation by income

        (4) And a historically major driver of associative marriage (in addition to #1), marrying for similar lifestyles. As social classes become more distinct, and our common culture fragments, then people marry for similar values, interests, etc.

        Much of this is positive feedback, the great accelerator of social change. And the collapse of public policies designed to counteract these tendencies.

    2. Greer’s statement about the conflation of wealth with intelligence is consistent with what I’ve seen among my Brahmin peers. As a rule of thumb these people are hesitant to date below their own educational class. Most are bashful about this hesitancy, but a few are defiantly proud of it. Their motivations are generally a mishmash of socioeconomic, educational and cultural biases, but since most of these people come from families and communities where it’s considered uncouth to express socioeconomic bias, they express subtler educational and cultural biases instead. I’ve noticed less reticence about looking down on one’s economic inferiors on the part of Eastern Seaboard elites, more than a few of whom take sadistic glee in their superiority, but even these noxious petty aristocrats tend to mix in references to superior educational attainment, not because they have strong cultural or academic interests (they more often act like pigs in clover), but because dropping the names of respected educational institutions and degrees sounds good.

      These haughty attitudes have been an entrenched problem for generations in a few very wealthy neighborhoods (the Main Line comes to mind), but they seem to be spreading and gaining wider social acceptance. I fear that my childhood hometown of Palo Alto is emblematic of this cultural shift. When I lived there (1982-1992), it was well-to-do but solidly bourgeois in its economy and culture. Since about 1998, it’s been obscenely wealthy and crass.

      1. Roth,

        Perhaps you are right. I too often hear people conflate wealth/income and intelligence. However, that does not mean that such attitudes substantially influence their marriage decisions.

        Also, such subjective and anecdotal evidence about sociological factors has a long history of often being proven wrong.

        The dynamics mentioned in the American Journal of Sociology study are consistent with research I’ve seen in other studies (and in the other articles they cite), and seem logical.

    3. FM –

      I would be glad to provide evidence.

      Miss Schwartz has done a great deal of work on assortative marriage and education levels. Start here:


      Her curriculum vitae contains a few other studies she has done since then.


      The general trends is that people who have attained high levels of education are increasingly likely to marry each other and people who have not attained these levels of education almost never marry those who have.

      I imagine most of the readers of the FM site are familiar with how closely correlated education is with wealth. Less well known is how closely it is correlated with IQ. Know a person’s level of education and you not only have a fair idea of what their IQ will be (within a range) but what their children’s IQ will be too.

      Almost all of the things mentioned – workplace segregation by income, geographic segregation by income, men selecting high income women – could be restated in terms of educational levels, and thus IQ. Work place segregation by IQ. Geographic segregation by IQ. High IQ men selecting high IQ women. Part of this has to do with the simple fact that over the last 60 years the market value of IQ has gone up considerably since 1960. Part of it also reflects the fact that the great majority of high IQ people get sucked into a very small number of colleges – top 5% go to just forty universities. The smart start congregating with each other there and never stop.

      I discuss more of this evidence (with sources!) in my post “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream.” A lot of it is based on Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1963-2010. I firmly suggest that everybody who is interested enough in this topic to read the comment thread read this book. Murray has a clearer picture of who the ruling class is and where they came from than any other author or researcher I have read. He presents substantial evidence outlining the connections between IQ, wealth, education, and geographic sorting.

      1. Greer,

        I don’t want to discuss the utility or validity of IQ. Nor was that what you said:

        “The rich do not see themselves as marrying other rich people – they see themselves as marrying other smart people.”

        None of your data addresses what people “see themselves” as doing. You don’t even know they believe all that stuff about IQ. I don’t.

  2. Two additional thoughts, real quick –

    1. Susan Patton wrote a revealing letter to the editor for the Daily Princetonian earlier this year. In said letter she urged all those young Princetonians – especially the women – to get hitched as soon as they could. It got a lot of press because the Huffington Post-Jezebels-Salon crowd objected to the idea some old fart could tell them when to get married. They missed the letter’s bigger problem. Here is what she said:

    Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

    It seems that men who graduated from Texas State or University of Massachusetts-Boston just aren’t worthy of them. This is not qualitative evidence. But revealing nonetheless.

    2. I have found that this topic makes many people uncomfortable. One of the main ways the ruling class justifies its position is by claiming – mostly to each other – that its members are smarter than the rest of America. Inasmuch as intelligence can be measured by IQ, then the ruling class is correct. They are smarter. The richest 1% is the smartest demographic in America. And we are all the worse off for it.

    Fred Reed said things best on this count. I will just link to his essay on why rule by smart people is bad, because it doesn’t deserve to be parsed up: Commentator’s Disease: Letting Them Eat Cake.

    But it is a difficult truth for many to acknowledge. American culture puts a lot of stock on brains (see how many common insults have to do with intelligence), so we don’t like to think the overlords have more of it. They do. Alas, intelligence is not integrity – or wisdom.

    1. None of this is new. It’s all ancient, heard again and again over generations.

      (1) “But it is a difficult truth for many to acknowledge.”

      It is not a truth. It is an ancient assertion of elites, dressed up in scientific robes. 19th century novels are filled with such tripe. It’s not a coincidence that it reappears as social mobilty is shut down.

      (2) Fred Reed has become an old crank, railing about race and class like so many old white cranks these days — and in the past.

      (3) As for these writings by women, this is “hypergamy”. From Wikipedia:

      Hypergamy (colloquially referred to as “marrying up”) is the act or practice of marrying a spouse of higher caste or status than oneself.

      The term is often used more specifically in reference to a perceived tendency among human cultures for females to seek or be encouraged to pursue male suitors that are higher status than themselves, which often manifests itself as being attracted to men who are comparatively older, wealthier or otherwise more privileged than themselves or their current partners. According to economists, females have evolved a preference for higher status males because they offer their prospective children both “better” genes and greater resources, e.g. food and security. Men, who invest less in their children, have less reason to prefer mates with high social status. Some have even argued that males “marry-down” to ensure that their mates have a higher incentive to remain faithful.

    2. 1. Or perhaps it is part of the reason mobility is being shut down?

      You don’t want to talk IQ, so we don’t have to. We can switch “IQ” with “educational levels” if it makes you feel more comfortable. The data is the same. Every single statistic that you cite in regards to wealth can also be switched to “educational levels.”

      Which leaves us at an impasse. You say average kid could never marry Mr. Darcy because she isn’t rich enough; I say she could never marry Mr. Darcy because she isn’t educated enough. You have asked me to provide evidence that educated, smart people marry other educated, smart people because they are smart and educated. * I’ll go ahead and ask the same of you: what evidence do you have that wealthy people are marrying each other because they are wealthy? Wealth – like education – is correlated. But is it the real draw? Or is it a common culture? Or is it, as Mr. Reed might say, because both of them can sit down at a bar and talk about Keynes?

      Funnily enough, I only read that Fred Reed article on your own “strong recommendation”.

      (Which if you think about the types of things people say in relationship surveys – “good grammar”, “I can confide in him”, “has a similar sense of humor” – makes a whole lot of sense…).

      1. “very single statistic that you cite in regards to wealth can also be switched to “educational levels.”

        I don’t understand how you can make this argument, assuming it is about social mobility (otherwise I don’t see a point) unless you have been very sheltered. Or live on Mars. Go visit some blue collar schools, then some inner city schools. Ask how many have tutors, take prep courses, get fancy high school jobs, etc. Then make some calls. See how much even a State university costs, and what financial aid is available. Ask what proportion can finish in 4 years, due to insufficient staffing of the required courses.

        I could go on, but the conversation is absurd. Our education system is as equal as our judicial system. Not at all, and getting less so over time.

        As for the Fred Reed article, I didn’t realize it was from 2010. I stopped reading him in disgust during the past year, as his article became quite bitter and rancid — with racist and sexist overtones. That article is more about gross income/class gaps, and how we treat the less fortunate, than establishing that we’re a meritocracy. But even back in 2010 we can see his romanticizing of the system taking hold — as if most of the people running the show have IQs of 140+.

      2. ” I’ll go ahead and ask the same of you: what evidence do you have that wealthy people are marrying each other because they are wealthy?”

        Wow. I give up. Read the society pages, and look at all the old rich people with young hot spouses. No doubt it’s their education!

    3. “American culture puts a lot of stock on brains (see how many common insults have to do with intelligence), ”

      Before believing that, I’d like to see more evidence than some jokes. America has a deep thread of anti-intellectualism, and distrust of intellectuals. In the south saying “he’s a smart guy” can be an insult. Ditto in many inner city cultures. Nor do our corporate cultures prize intelligence. The primary traits of CEOs are tall, regular features, and sociopathy.

      Speaking of jokes, have you heard the one about the small airplane carryinge four people: the pilot, the Pope, Bill Gates and a hitchhiker. Suddenly the pilot burst through the doors to the passenger compartment and announced that there was a fuel leakage and the plane would crash in 5 minutes. “There are only three parachutes I’m afraid,” he said, as he hurriedly grabbed one for himself and jumped out. That left the three passengers and two parachutes.

      Bill Gates said, “I’m very important, and I’m the world’s smartest man and I deserve to live.” And with that he grabbed a pack and leaped out.

      “Young man,” said the Pope to the hitchhiker, “I am old, I have lived my life and it was a very good one. You’re still young, please take the last parachute and save yourself. My life is in the hands of God.”

      “It’s okay,” said the hitchhiker. “Don’t worry, we have a parachute each. The world’s smartest man just jumped out with my backpack!”

  3. The joke made me smile.

    “Nor do our corporate cultures prize intelligence.”

    I disagree. Please see Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, especially the first chapter. It is aptly titled, “Biographies of Hegemony: the Culture of Smartness and the Recruitment of Investment Bankers.” In that chapter and those that follow, Ho – who worked on Wall Street for a year to collect ethnographic evidence – shows how obsessed Wall Street corporate culture is with “smartness” and hard work. They try very hard to be the smartest, hardest working people in America.* After first four chapters she spends the rest of the book showing how Wall Street corporate culture hijacked American corporate culture writ large.

    *(I would argue they have largely succeeded – but at the cost of thinking everybody should work 110 hours a week [many do work that much] and feeling no qualms at laying off vast numbers of blue collar workers not ready to do so on a whim. [Other interesting fact about Wall Street – higher lay off rate than blue collar America. Another thing they think is normal: they are ‘smart enough’, after all, to get a job again soon.).

    1. Greer,

      This no longer has anything to do with marriage, or anything at all so far as I can tell. Each rebuttal is followed by a topic shift. One last note about her “ethnographic evidence”.

      First, investment banking is only one part of Wall Street. Trading, sales (institutional and retail), and operations are the other legs of the table, and equally important. Although senior managers seldom come from operations. In none of these is intelligence the highest quality valued.

      In sales intelligence is not even highly valued, but a second rung quality.

      Second, even in IB there are subgroups, in which other qualities valued. Mergers and acquisitions and municipal finance are largely sales jobs ( or networking, to put it more politely).

      What people say, esp to outsiders, is seldom representative of their actual values. A paramount value of Wall Street is a willingness to screw your customers to a degree unusual even in US corporate culture (I.e., even more important than protecting the “brand”). Did she pick that up?

      Interesting, that is clear in some biography — such as “Liar’s Poker” — and some books about Wall Street — such as Barbarians at the Gate.

  4. Speaking as someone who went to Princeton with Susie Patton and knew her personally, I bite my tongue.

    However, in a – probably futile – effort to steer the comments back to Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austin, et cetera, may I make the following observation:

    1) The enhanced status of the aristocracy / gentry, et cetera, derived from the belief that they were closer to God. The divine right of kings was but the most extreme and distilled aspect of this broader notion.

    2) H. Trevor Roper wrote an essay about the “Decline of the Mere Gentry.” This pertains to the declining gentry of 17th Century England. I can’t find find a link on the Internet for this unfortunately. However, to bring back the subject of Princeton, I there studied under Trevor-Roper’s great rival, Lawrence Stone, who made a big deal about this. The upshot, however, is that when declining mere gentry suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous snubs, such as Ms. Bennet would have endured at the hands of Mr. Darcy, they grow sour faced. This can be a real pain in the neck – as Trevor-Roper asserts Charles I found out.

  5. The Bennet family are members of the upper class, with the exception of Mrs. Bennet, who was born in the middle class. Mr. Bennet is a landowner, despite the modest nature of his estate. Actually, his income is the same as Colonel Brandon, who is definitely a member of the landed gentry and upper class.

    The Lucas family are members of the upper class, but they are not as high up as the Bennets, despite Sir William Lucas’ knighthood. Sir William was born in the middle-class and earned his income through trade, before he purchased an estate and broke his ties with the mercantile source of income. The Lucases are not an old landed gentry family, like the Bennets.

    The Bingleys are members of the middle class. Despite their wealth, Charles Bingley and his family earned their income through TRADE. Charles would have to follow Sir William’s example in order to become a member of the upper class.

    Fitzwilliam and Georgiana Darcy were not members of the aristocracy. They, like their father, were members of the landed gentry. The same could be said for Anne de Bourgh, whose father was only a baronet. Baronets are not peers. However, Darcy’s mother and his aunt, Lady Catherine are members of the aristocracy, due to being the daughters of a peer – an earl.

    1. Lady L,

      Thanks for raising this topic! I wonder what the class descriptions meant circa 1800. Wikipedia gives somewhat contradictory definitions of “Middle Class” in the 18th and 19th centuries (similar to those of Bourgeoisie, with its current meaning stabilized in 1913.

      In a UK context, I think “gentry” is perhaps a more useful descriptor for P&P — esp to 21st century Americans — than “middle class.”

      Making these things more complex were the orthogonal classes by family and wealth, both of which defined status. It was a more complex social schema than the almost purely money-based stratification of modern America, and so difficult for most of us to grasp.

  6. The Bennets were members of the upper class. Period. You’re judging the British class system of the late 18th century and 19th century on how class is judged today. It was more about blood connection and how one’s wealth was earned, and not about the size of a person’s bank account. Mr. Bennet was a member of the landed gentry, because he had earned his income as a landowner and not through trade (like Charles Bingley) or a profession (like Mrs. Bennet’s father).

    1. Lady Lavinia,

      It is helpful if you point to something specific for your rebuttal, as your broad statements have no obvious relationship to anything in this post.

      “You’re judging …”

      Please read more carefully. This is a quotation from an article in the London Review of Books by Linda Colley, a Professor of History at Princeton — specializing in British history. As her Wikipedia entry shows, she has a distinguished record. I suggest caution when accusing her of ignorance about basic facts of British history.

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