I am delighted to welcome Pamela Lynne to the salon to lift the lid on pawnbrokers in Georgian England!
Mr. Gardiner led Darcy into a room guarded by two more men and what he saw there was bewildering. The walls were covered with exquisite paintings and tapestries. Tables lined the room, holding fine crystal and boxes that he could only assume contained jewels.
“The man I apprenticed for taught me many valuable lessons, one of which is that there is much profit to be made off the vices of the aristocracy. At the time, he meant brandy and silks, but the Prince Regent has set such an excellent example of debauchery the first circles are finding it hard to afford to stay in fashion.”
Darcy continued his perusal of the room. When his eyes landed on the man in front of him, he nodded in understanding.
“You are a pawnbroker. You make high-interest loans so gentlemen can maintain their lifestyle of excess. The treasure before us is their collateral.”
“That’s about the size of it, Mr. Darcy. When they cannot pay, their treasures go to auction, so that men such as myself or Mr. Bingley can buy a piece of nobility at a reasonable price.”
This excerpt is from my first book Dearest Friends: A Jane Austen Inspired Novel. The line “the vices of the aristocracy,” came to me fairly early in the writing process as I was trying to create a Mr. Gardiner (a man of trade) whom the gentlemen of the London ton would begrudgingly accept into their society not out of liberality, but fear. Who would a gentleman of that time possibly fear? The man who owned his debt.
Though I may have taken dramatic license with the extent of Mr. Gardiner’s power in London, pawnbrokers had been in business throughout Europe for centuries. Early Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices regarding usury prevented pawning from becoming a thriving business until Pope Leo X gave it legitimacy. The early practice was intended to help the poor, but eventually, pawnbrokers earned a nasty reputation for charging exorbitant interest as well as being an outlet for stolen goods.
Officials in Georgian England attempted to stem this by regulating the practice. Pawnbroking came to England with the Normans and eventually Lombard merchants settled there, providing services to Edward III, who pawned the crown jewels to fund his war against France. By the time the Hanoverians came to the throne, however, the men providing these services were once again seen as less than savory individuals.
In 1785, the Pawnbroker’s License Law was enacted, which required pawnbrokers to purchase a license. It also reduced the amount of interest they could legally charge. This was changed in 1800 when Lord Eldon (a wonderful figure if you like tales of elopements and political players) used his influence to increase that figure. The laws continued to change throughout the years with modern laws and practices growing from standards put in place during the Victorian Era.
So, what were the vices of the aristocracy that sent them to these notorious individuals? Georgian and Regency society loved excess, but unpaid sums to shopkeepers could be ignored with little consequence. What could not be overlooked were debts incurred at the gaming tables. Debts of honor could get a man shot or run through. After a bad run of luck, a gentleman would likely prefer losing bits of his family history to losing his life.
Thieves and the hungry were just as drawn to the doors of the pawnbroker. Whatever desperation led individuals, both privileged and not, there, debt was good business if you were on the right side of it. From the House of Medici to today’s Pawn Stars, need drives profit and vices can still be a broker’s best friends.
About the Author
Pamela Lynne grew up in the American South, surrounded by Southern Gothic works by Faulkner, O'Connor and the like. These authors helped shape her evolving mind and continue to influence everything she produces as an adult. It was a Regency-era wit from across the Atlantic, however, who seeped into her being.
She often describes her developing years as "Longbourn, The White Trash Version," and credits Jane Austen for what little sense she brought away from that time. She has met her share of Willoughbys and Wickhams, Bingleys and Tilneys, and writes about them all.
Pamela’s debut novel, Dearest Friends: A Jane Austen Inspired Novel, won the Independent Publishers 2016 IPPY Awards Bronze Medal for Romance. This year, she began a person journey, A Janeite Looks at Forty, where she documents her re-reading of Austen’s beloved works, comparing her thoughts now to those when she first discovered Austen over twenty years ago.
She currently lives in the rolling hills of Tennessee with her husband of more than a decade, three kids, two cats and one very blond dog. She is still a Marianne hoping to grow into Elinor, or Clairee from Steel Magnolias.
Written content of this post copyright © Pamela Lynne, 2016.