Sunday, 20 March 2011


Third virtual meeting to enjoy Sense and Sensibility in its Bicentenary. This month, C. Allyn Pierson writes about Property and Inheritance Law. Join us in the discussion and get the chance to win a modern retake of Austen 's S&S, THE THREE WEISSMANN OF WESTPORT by Cathleen Schine (My review HERE). Giveaway ends March 31st and is open internationally.

English inheritance and property laws are issues often on the minds of the characters in Jane Austen’s novels and are often the cause of worry and distress. Inheritance laws were based on the concept of primogeniture, or inheritance by the eldest son. If the owner of an estate did not leave a will, all of the estate would go to his eldest son. Unlike today, the assets would not be given to his wife, if living, or divided among his children if his wife had died. This law reflected the strong social norms of the time, and most men who did make wills left their estate to their eldest son, as well. The purpose of this custom was to keep the estate strong. If an estate was divided among the children of each generation, sooner or later the family members would not have enough land to provide a living. Moreover, land was what gave you power in pre-Twentieth Century England. If one person owns a huge estate, he has both money and influence in society and government. If that same estate is divided among five children, they each have 1/5th the influence of their father, and so on.

One of the major aspects of property law which impacted the characters in Jane Austen’s novels was the entail. An entail was a legal entity which prevented the owner of the property from selling any of the entailed property. The entail was created by one of the previous owners of the estate and would impact his heirs until it expired. How long the entail lasted depended on how it was written, but British law forbade tying up property in perpetuity, i.e. you couldn’t tie it up forever, a situation which would leave an estate without an owner forever if there were no male heirs.
If an owner and his heir could agree to it, the entail could be set aside, which is what Mr Bennet had hoped to do if he had a son in Pride and Prejudice.  Naturally, Mr Collins would not want to do that, but he also could not legally break the entail with Mr Bennet, because he is only the heir presumptive.  If Mrs Bennet died and Mr Bennet remarried a young woman and had a son, then Mr Collins would not inherit. Only if Mr Bennet has an heir of his body could they break the entail, because he is an actual heir and could never be superseded by another.

A son who inherited his father’s estate was then the head of the family and it was presumed that he would assist any needy family members, whether indigent sisters or underage siblings. This often meant allowing his widowed mother and any single sisters to live with him if they did not have the means to survive on their own and helping young brothers to be educated and put in the way of a career. This assistance to mothers, brothers and sisters, however, was only a social expectation and he had no legal obligation to do so. Society would strongly censure a man who turned his sisters out to starve, but how he interpreted “helping” his family was up to him, an issue which seriously injured the Dashwood sisters.Having only a half-brother, and one who was selfish and under the thumb of his grasping wife, left his sisters and step-motheru nwanted interlopers in their former home.The Dashwoods were fortunate that a cousin of Mrs Dashwood offered them Barton Cottage for a very small rent, as John’s wife, Fanny, made it clear that they were not really welcome and that Elinor was not to be considering her brother as a husband.

The situation of Mrs Dashwood and her daughters was very similar to what would have happened to Mrs Bennet and her daughters if Mr Bennet had died when the girls were unmarried, but the cause of the Dashwoods’ distress is very different than the Bennets’. Unlike Longbourn, Norland was not entailed. Mr Henry Dashwood and his wife and daughters lived with his uncle at Norland and took care of him for the last years of his life. Henry Dashwood had been married before and had a son by his first wife. This son, John Dashwood, inherited half of his mother’s marriage settlement, money that had been set aside when she married Henry Dashwood, when he turned twenty-one. The other half of her money was left to Henry Dashwood for his lifetime. On his father’s death, John inherited whatever was left of his mother’s money. Thus, John Dashwood was comfortably provided for by his mother.

The difficulties came in when Henry Dashwood’s uncle died. Instead of leaving Norland outright to Henry, the uncle left it to him only for his lifetime, at which time it would pass to John’s young son, who had won the uncle’s heart with his childish behaviour. This would preclude Henry from selling any of the estate, but would allow him to keep any income earned by the estate, so he could put this cash away and keep it, leaving it to whomever he pleased.
In fact, Henry’s plan, upon learning how the estate was left, was to save as much income as he could and leave it for the support of his second wife and their three daughters. Unfortunately, he died less than a year after inheriting Norland, leaving only about £10,000 for the four women, most of which was Mrs Dashwood’s marriage settlement.  Commonly, this money would be invested in “the four-percents”, which were basically government bonds with a guaranteed four percent income, which could be used for them to live on. When their mother subsequently died, this money would be divided among the three girls, giving them each about £3,000 as a legacy.This amount was not enough to tempt a younger son or a gentleman without an independent fortune into marriage. In this way, although Norland was not entailed, the estate was tied up by the will of Henry’s uncle in such a way that Henry was left in a position that was not much different than it would have been with an entail.

(picture from Jane Austen Today )

In addition to these money problems, John Dashwood’s mother-in-law had inherited all of her husband’s estate and she used this money to try and control the futures of her sons. She, like her daughter, thought that money and power were the most important considerations in life, and she pressed her eldest son to take up a career in the military or politics rather than indulge his desire to be a minister in a country parish. That Edward Ferrars was unsuited to such a career was irrelevant to Mrs Ferrars and she was quite willing to blast Edward’s prospects and give over his desserts as eldest son to his brother if Edward did not dance to her tune.  This part of Sense and Sensibility demonstrates that having complete control over a fortune is only of use to your family if it is wielded for their good. Ultimately, Mrs Ferrars finds that her favoured younger son is also willing to defy her wishes, but it is too late for Edward; his brother had already been given the inheritance previously slated for Edward.

Women during this time were allowed to own property and have their own money, but when they married everything they owned became their husband’s property. Their marriage settlement would specify a specific amount of “pin money” which she would receive each year for her personal use, but she did not have access to any other money unless her husband gave her more. Thus, a woman from a wealthy family would be in the same situation as one from a poor family if the marriage went bad-she might be unable to leave the situation and support herself. A woman of independent wealth might want to think long and hard before she married!

C. Allyn Pierson is the nom de plume of physician Carey A. Bligard, who has combined her many years of interest in the works of Jane Austen and the history of the Regency England into this sequel to Pride and Prejudice.  She lives in Fort Dodge, Iowa, with her husband and two ill-behaved dogs.

Now, your comments and e-mail addresses to get a chance to win the latest version of Sense and Sensibility! Giveaway open worldwide. Winner will be announced on March 31st.



Welcome back on My JA Bok Club, C.! And thank you so much for this thoroughful, interesting contribution. This is just great to demonstrate how wrong those who dismiss Jane Austen's works as romances are. These themes are truly a smart analysis of the 18th century society and with her witty style she fullfils such elegant satire!
Great post.

Linda said...

What a very interesting post about inheritance laws of bygone days. I'm certainly grateful that today's laws are more liberal. While reading Ms.Pierson's remarks, I was also reminded of the recent Masterpiece production of Downton Abbey.

maichi3 said...

Maria, it's a very interesting post. Thanks for have the chance to win a copy open worldwide.

Kelly said...

Very interesting post! I've always wished to live during the 18th century, but I think it would have been difficult to deal with this matter of inheritance. Thank God it's not like this anymore :)
Thank you for making this giveaway international!
maniezkelly at gmail dot com

Regina Jeffers said...

Carey, I certainly wish that I had understood all these "nuances" of British society the first time I read S&S. I was aware of the concept of the entail from other pieces I had read, but for the life of me, I couldn't quite get what was going on with the Dashwoods. It seemed quite contrived for a story line. It was only after my teen years that I finally grasped the intricacies of the situation in which the Dashwood sisters found themselves. Only then did I appreciate the conflict Austen had created.

C. Allyn Pierson said...

Regina: This is so often a problem reading pre-20th Century literature; we tend to skim over these intricacies because we don't understand them and thus miss the nuances of the stories. I did not know much about Regency history until I began research for my first book (and the research took at least as long as the book!) Now, I find Regency history to be addictive- the more I learn the more I want to know and the more I enjoy the novels!

Claudia said...

It has been very interesting to read such a comprehensive essay about inheritance. Although it’s common knowledge, the status of women was really hard (and frustrating, I’d say), if you think that even wealthy women could not manage their own money by themselves. I know it’s naive, but I feel so angry about this, I really can’t stand it!

MarySimonsen said...

Very helpful, Carey. Thank you.

Beatrise said...

Hello! I really enjoyed reading this post. Currently I am doing studies on this particular work and found it very helpful. The giveaway is a cherry on the top and thanks for making it international!

venusnoire1 (at) inbox . lv

Luthien84 said...

Thanks for the details of entailment and property ownership in Regency era. This post basically sums up the difficult life that the Dashwoods women encounter due to inheritance law that favours gentleman. I'm lucky to be living in the 21st century and what I own is mine after marriage.


Alexa Adams said...

Great post! I've always found primogeniture laws fascinating, and the manner in which the subject is explored in S&S is particularly fascinating. I have often wondered about what Austen was trying to say by providing duel examples of inheritance schemes: while the Dashwood's certainly suffer under a system that favors males, the example of Mrs. Ferrars (as well as Lady Catherine in P&P and Lady Denham in Sanditon) does not exactly promote the notion that women could handle the situation much better. Overall, inheritance, regardless of its format, is constantly portrayed as problematic by Austen, and I really enjoyed the emphasis you placed here on the importance of generosity and kindness, rather than money, in promoting familial welfare.