All the recent talk about recession got me thinking about the cost of living in Regency times. In Venetia Murray's book, High Society in the Regency Period, she tells of Mary Berry who, upon her engagement to General O'Hara, prepared an estimate for their future expenses. They were not rich in comparison with the company they kept and could only just afford to sustain their role in society.
Mary's budget included every comfort necessary to a small establishment in London and deduced that an income of just over £2,000 a year was the absolute minimum upon which they could entertain agreeably all those friends who should prefer a neat plain dinner or supper, and our agreeable society, to a French cook and dull company.
The budget included the wages of seven indoor servants and a coachman and £800 for the general to spend on himself but she had cut off all your extravagancies, your saddle horses, your separate carriage and one of your men-servants. This is not as selfish as it sounds since she has allowed herself only £200 a year for personal expenses, including clothes - a fraction of the amount most women in their circle spent on dressing.
At the other end of the scale, a large proportion of families existed on an income of £50 a year or less, which equates to about £2,000 today - well below the poverty line - leading Murray to conclude that the dichotomy between rich and poor must have been infinitely greater two hundred years ago than it is today: a difficult argument to refute.