Actuarial issues in the novels of Jane Austen

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By Daniel D. Skwire | 01 January 1997

The novels of Jane Austen have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity recently, and many new readers have come to appreciate the relevance of her stories to modern times. This relevance should be particularly evident to actuaries, however, because the novels deal quite explicitly with the issues of wealth, inheritance, mortality, and life expectancy that confronted the nonworking classes of the early nineteenth century.

This paper examines the six novels of Jane Austen from an actuarial perspective. It provides historical background on inheritances, clerical livings, and mortality, and it analyzes the way in which these issues are central to Austen’s novels. It uses a contemporary mortality table to assess the accuracy with which Austen’s characters estimate life expectancies and annuity calculations. It presents a close study of Sense and Sensibility, a novel in which a number of actuarial issues are central to the plot and are presented in great detail. Finally, it suggests that Austen’s own background and family life meant that actuarial issues were important in her life and therefore reflected in her novels.

This paper, first published in the North American Actuarial Journal, offers a new argument for the relevance of great literature, and it offers actuaries a new perspective from which to explore and understand the history of their profession.

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