Of Math

The scene I’m writing now, in my new Chapter Seven, has Miles speaking to his brother-in-law Henry. They’re in the back office of Miles’s shipping company’s place, where Henry has been acting manager for several weeks. Miles has an enemy who sleuthed out something about Miles and his wife Adele and then proceeded to tell everyone he saw about what he found out. Henry has told Miles that a few of their clients are pulling their sugar to other merchants. Miles is trying to calculate how much of a loss that means for the company and he’s trying to judge whether this is the start of a trend.

So Miles sits in a chair and he is calculating.

I got a few measurements out of a research book. Basically, sugar was usually packed and measured by hogshead. A hogshead was equal to 4 barrels or six hundred pounds. A short hundredweight was a hundred pounds (incidentally, a long hundredweight was a 112 pounds. Huh? Gotta love non-standard measurements…)

I’m digging, trying to figure out how much this sugar may have sold for. Prices seem to vary based on the year, the season, and the port.

In the meantime, somewhere in the text of the third draft, I said that Miles has an income of 7,000 pounds a year.

Anyone who has read Jane Austen knows that Mr. Darcy’s income is 10,000 a year. According to this essay, 10,000 a year is something like 300 times the per capita income of his day. In 1800, a farmer or laborer earned about 15 to 20 pounds a year. 

10,000 pounds was about average for a member of the Greater Landed Gentry, whose incomes range from 5,000 to 50,000 a year. I might lower Miles down to about 5,000 a year. He could still afford a modest estate and horses and carriage on that income. Plus, he isn’t being supported by his father’s estate, so to say that he’s earned enough in just six or seven years to have 5,000 a year…

Of course the question is, why bother with all this math stuff? It’s true, I don’t like math. I’ve never been good at it. I don’t understand it. I could gloss over it. In draft 3, I only mention Miles’s income once.

I kind of like it when historical novels mention money though, as archaic as the form may be. In Elizabeth Chadwick’s medieval books, gold and silver coins and florins are mentioned. I don’t necessarily know what that means or how much it would be today, but it gives a historical novel reality and grounds it.

And because of Austen, anyone reading a halfway decent Regency historical romance knows that *wink, wink* her twenty thousand a year is very, very good to the fortune hunter who is after her, for example.

Edited to add: a table in that same research book showed me sugar sales in Bristol, England, differentiated by colony, by shillings per hundredweight. Yay! 🙂

Now I need to figure out how many pounds 83 shillings equaled because this is way before decimalization.

4 thoughts on “Of Math

  1. Oh my gosh, Math! The horror…Like kudos for trying to figure all this stuff out. I had a story once where I described what the money looks like and even that drove me batty. There wasn't even any counting involved. And it was like two sentences. You're right though, little details like that really can make the world you're creating more vivid.


  2. Apparently, Miles is good at math. Too bad I'm not. It's only a paragraph, though. I worked out that one of the reasons this draft is dragging a little is because I'm not connecting with Miles, which is annoying. So I'm just happy that he took a turn I wasn't necessarily expecting. Off to interview Miles. I need him to be as vivid as the other POVs.


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