One of the things Thomas Piketty was rather undeservedly praised for last year, in reviews of Capital in the 21st Century, was his use of literary references like Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, to show the effects on ordinary life and culture of the greater inequality of 19th Century Europe. As Slate put it in a relatively critical response:
Novels by Balzac and Jane Austen matter for Piketty because they dramatize the immobility of a 19th-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality—a world our own century is beginning to resemble once again. Since returns on capital were reliable, especially for large fortunes, the best way to get ahead was to start out ahead; income from labor could never catch up. The stability of 19th-century wealth is felt not only in plots that center on inheritance, but also, Piketty adds, in the references that flesh out a fictional world. “Specific references to wealth and income were omnipresent in the literature of all countries before 1914,” he writes, because money was a stable social reference point.
Yes, inheritance was much more important in old books, and probably it was more important in ordinary people’s lives, than inheritance is for most people today. See, for example, this historian’s account of how elderly, not particularly wealthy Americans in the 19th Century used the promise of an inheritance to get young people to take care of them as they lost their physical and mental capacities– inheritance was important for reasons unrelated to inequality, as well.
Moreover, inheritance was different in different places. Not everywhere (or everywhen) was Elizabeth Bartlett hounding after Mr. Darcy for his 10,000 a year. One of the reasons that Tolstoy’s books feel so modern even today is that Russian upper class women could inherit: there wasn’t primogeniture, and the oldest male heir didn’t inherit the whole shebang. As a result, Tolstoy is full of pretty and not-so-pretty heiresses being pursued by handsome wastrels, and the relations between the sexes in general feel a bit more equal than they do in English novels of the same vintage, another example of how changes in relative income appears to make a difference.
One of my intellectual pet peeves is the way we tend to date all changes in male-female relations from how things appear to us in 1950s movies and TV shows, from Cindarella and Father Knows Best. But the 50s were at a historical extreme of male to female earnings ratios- go read some Chaucer if you want to see women telling men what they really think. Edith Wharton’s upper crust New York Society seems pretty straightlaced, but I’ve read accounts of Old West towns in Wyoming before the railroads come where the few women who were there seemed to be having a grand and wild old time.
The past never was one thing.