Exactly two hundred years after Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice Peter Hayward of Hayward Tod looks at how our dreams and aspirations in owning property may have changed.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single family in possession of a good mortgage must be in want of a house. Jane Austen’s popular novel may have been about the importance of environment and upbringing on the development of young people's character and morality. But it also had a great deal to do with the acquisition of property.

Austen knew a thing or two about property, or at least the importance of owning it. Although her preferred route to possession would have been through marriage or inheritance, she would have understood about financing a property purchase through a mortgage as her life coincided with the advent of the building society movement.

Austen understood that social status played a major role in owning or aspiring to own property. Above all perhaps, she understood that an individual’s or family’s financial circumstances played a pivotal role in determining where and how one lived - and how one was seen to live. She certainly knew the value of a fine location and the benefits that well-proportioned rooms and good natural light bestowed upon occupants.

This understanding seems as apt today as it was when Jane Austen was alive in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The desire to house one’s self and/or one’s family comfortably, and the pleasure that a well-designed house gives to its owner - both socially and materially – seem largely unaltered.

But two things have changed. Residential property no longer just demonstrates wealth but creates it, and thus makes it even more desirable. Also, the de-mutualisation of the building societies and their takeover by banks is threatening the way we think about owning property. Today this means that, unless the government and the banks husband the situation carefully and responsibly, for the first time in two hundred years it may only be the already well off who can realistically afford to buy property.

Building societies were created to allow their members to buy property. Banks were created to make money for their shareholders. Building societies were prudent and fiscally responsible. Banks clearly haven’t been and are a perfect example of pride coming before a fall. To extract themselves from the trouble they are in the banks now seem prejudiced against the very people the building societies were formed to assist. Jane Austen could have written a book about it.