Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Your daughter will be immensely rich - How rich is Catherine Sloper in Washington Square?

"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.


  1. That does change my view of it a lot as well.

  2. Fascinating. It would be interested to know how much taxes were paid on this income.

    It's very common in Balzac or in British literature to talk about the income that way. I think of all the figures in La Cousine Bette or the income per year in Jane Austen. (I calculated interest rates once after reading a Balzac, to understand how expensive the credit was)

    However, in British novels, the income usually comes from estates. It's the revenue from the sales of crops, livestock, rents...

    In Washington Square, my question is: where does the income come from? I mean, to have an income, either you work or you have a capital invested somewhere.
    So where did Dr Sloper invest the money from his late wife? And how did he manage to earn enough money to own a capital that makes a yearly profit of $20 000?
    In the book I read about 19thC England, they talk about investment in government bonds. Do you know if that existed in the US as well?


    Now I have another question: did prenups exist in the 19th

  3. Now I need to dive into some specific scenes and make an argument about what difference this makes.

    I do not know about the prenups - I have doubts, but people made some pretty strange contractual arrangements back then - but I do know that there was no Federal income tax at the time. Most Federal revenue came from import tariffs.

    I have no idea, though, what New York State taxes were like. William James, the grandfather, made his fortune in real estate in western New York - at one point he owned the town of Syracuse, now a small city.

    It was really the building of the Erie Canal that made his investments worth so much. So his fortune was based on land, as in a Trollope novel, but not an "estate." More like modern real estate investing. So the income is from farming and rent, but the farm or town was only recently chopped out of the forest.

    Government bonds existed in the US, but only the UK had the amazing, rock-solid, perpetual Consol, which shows up in English novels so often.

  4. Love that "relatively."

    How could I not know that the Jameses were fabulously rich?

  5. James picked a heck of a long way to say "circa 1840."

    Henry James, Jr, grew up in great wealth - but! - his father was adept at spending every penny that came in the door, squandering much of it, so it was that paradoxical but not uncommon phenomenon of rich people who are strapped for cash - or always think they're strapped. Their "strapped" is not at all the same as actual "strapped."

    So Henry James himself, once he had stepped away from his family a bit, really did earn his own living from his writing and did not depend on any inheritance. Or so I understand.

  6. Sort of like the "poverty" of the March family in Little Women, where they only can afford one servant?

  7. The minimum accoutrements of a certain social standing are assumed.