"She has an income of ten thousand dollars in her own right, left her by her mother; if she marries a husband I approve, she will come into almost twice as much more at my death."
Mrs. Montgomery listened in great earnestness to this splendid financial statement; she had never heard thousands of dollars so familiarly talked about. She flushed a little with excitement. "Your daughter will be immensely rich," she said softly.
"Precisely--that's the bother of it." (Ch. 14)
Catherine Sloper is plain but rich. Flashy Morris has pursued her – for her money alone, or for her money and person? It is clear enough early on that “her person alone” is not an option. Catherine’s father, speaking above, thinks Morris is a gold digger and nothing but. Catherine disagrees. Here is a novel’s worth of material.
The above passage, not quite halfway through the book, is the first time that Catherine’s inheritance of $10,000 a year turns, however ephemerally, into $30,000 a year. Doubts that niggled began to pinch and even bite. What is “immensely rich”? What does ten thousand dollars a year mean?
To the inflation calculator! Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator only goes back to 1913 when the CPI became a well-defined object. A dollar in 1913 is equivalent to $23 today. Fortunately, during the 19th century inflationary periods were balanced by deflationary episodes, so the 1913 figure is not a bad proxy as long as you are not interested in the last years of the Civil War or another similarly unusual time. For more precision, please inspect the various price series in Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (1976). A multiplier between 20 and 24 is a likely result. I will use 20 to make the math easier.
So, back to Catherine Sloper, circa 1840 (“the first half of the present century, and more particularly during the latter part of it,” Ch. 1)* and her inheritance from her mother. Ten thousand dollars a year is then something like $200,000 a year today. “[A]lmost twice as much more,” thirty thousand, is then $600,000 a year. Of income, not wealth. Mrs. Montgomery is right.
Thinking the problem through, then, I had to adjust view of the novel’s central problem. The poor but dashing Morris is not simply pursuing an heiress. His prize is more like the granddaughter of a Rockefeller or a Carnegie. Or, to revert to the correct time, an Astor. Or a James.
I turn to The Jameses: A Family Narrative by R. W. B. Lewis, 1991, p. 30:
At least one Albany newspaper, offering figures that William James [grandfather of Henry] had been “prosperous almost without parallel,” ascribed to James a fortune of $3 million, and this is the value usually indicated. There is no way to translate such a figure with any kind of precision into terms meaningful in the late twentieth century. One could multiply, say, by twenty[!], and speak of an estate today of $60 million; but this does not begin to convey the image of one of the two or three richest men in the young country.
At William’s death, the estate was divided twelve ways. A saga in itself, the end result is that Henry James, Sr. ended up with an income “conventionally calculated at $10,000 a year,” which sounds familiar, although Lewis argues that it was closer to $12,500 a year, “an income that would be in excess of $300,000 a year before taxes” (31). Lewis appears to be using a multiplier of 24.
When Henry [Sr.] was informed of his legacy, he is said to have murmured: “Leisured for life.” And so he was. (30)
This is all background. Tomorrow: my doubts and my certainties. Correctly placing Catherine and her ten thousand dollars affects, and perhaps even changes, my interpretation of Washington Square.
* The prose in Washington Square is relatively straightforward.