In Jane Austen’s novels, the women, who weren’t supposed to work for a living to maintain their genteel status in the world, needed either an advantageous marriage or a dutiful, generous brother. Austen’s fiction was especially attuned to the lives of these women: educated, privileged, and yet often completely economically dependent on men.
Jane Austen’s Heroines
In Austen’s day, landowning families or gentry, had an average of seven children who might survive to adulthood. Only one of these children could inherit the family estate. This situation created challenges. It meant that the bulk of the family’s male offspring would eventually need a profession, or an advantageous marriage, or both, to support themselves.
With the exception of Emma Woodhouse, Austen’s heroines are shown to be experiencing even greater economic precarity than their structural dependency would suggest. Many of Austen’s heroines face the threat of a significantly downwardly mobile future. This would be a frightening prospect for anyone. But these heroines come into adulthood knowing that they’ll have little to no control over their own financial destinies, beyond marrying well.
Financial Insecurity for Women
This state of persistent insecurity with regard to income and financial status is faced by a long list of Austenian heroines. This includes Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, the daughter of a naval midshipman. It includes Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland, the daughter of a clergyman. Sense and Sensibility’s Dashwood sisters, too, are thrown into distress by the death of their father and selfishness of their half-brother and his wife.
It even includes Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet sisters. Although they are raised in gentry security and comfort, they know it will last only as long as their father lives because of the entail on his estate.
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There’s a lot of confusion about Pride and Prejudice’s entail. That word, entail, and the tradition it stems from, deserve explanation. The building block for the ideal life in Austen’s day was a single man in possession of a good fortune. By tradition, such a fortunate single man was the beneficiary of a tradition called primogeniture.
In economic terms, primogeniture signifies that the eldest son is, by default, his father’s heir at law—the one who will inherit property. If the father has anything to bequeath, the tradition of primogeniture suggests that he’ll probably give the bulk of it to his eldest son at his death.
An Entail in Austen’s Novels
As often is the case, wealth transfers didn’t always go as planned. That firstborn son might die before his father, in which case his wealth would probably go to the next eldest. But let’s say that there weren’t any surviving sons or weren’t any sons born at all. Here is when an entail assumes significance.
An entail simply lays out the legal understanding that, for generations to come, the next most closely related male heir would inherit the estate.
Heiresses in Austen’s Novels
Incidentally, it’s important to emphasize that primogeniture was tradition, not law. It served as the default arrangement, in the absence of a will, but it was not the imperative. A landowning family wasn’t legally obligated to choose male heirs, unless a previous generation had tied its hands with stipulations.
Emma Woodhouse is an heiress, for example, because the estate belonging to her family, Hartfield, isn’t secured legally to a male heir. Women could be heiresses. There were also instances where a family might even declare that, if its female heiress married, her husband had to take her last name. It was legally allowable to draw up such articles, requiring the taking on of a new surname, for passing down a family estate, whether to males or females.
In Austen’s Emma, Frank Churchill was in a similar but not identical situation; he was presumably born with the name Frank Weston but took his wealthy aunt’s surname. Jane Austen’s own brother, Edward Austen, changed his name to Edward Knight for this exact reason. He was made the heir of the childless Knight couple who adopted him. But, in real life, such situations were rare.
Stipulating Male Heirs
It was more likely that a stipulation would be made that an estate must be passed down through a related male—that, in effect, the family property couldn’t be inherited by a woman.
In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Norland, the Dashwood estate, is secured by its owner to his live-in nephew, Mr. Dashwood, and after that, to his eldest son, John Dashwood, and then after that secured to his charming little son. Shockingly, one elderly man alone could set out to stipulate, at his death, the next three generations of male heirs of the estate.
Freezing Out Daughters
This arrangement freezes out the Dashwood daughters and any other potential future sons of their father, Mr. Dashwood. This was an especially important consideration, at a time with many unexpected deaths and the potential for remarriages.
Presumably, old Mr. Dashwood’s settlement had other provisions for male heirs, in case all of those parties, nephew, nephew’s son, and nephew’s grandson, died before taking possession of the estate. In such a case, it would behoove a real-life Fanny Dashwood to try to give birth to another son.
Hence, an entail didn’t have to stipulate a line of inheritance for future male heirs, yet, it often did. Entails were legal devices meant to tie the hands of the person who next inherited the estate. But even entails could be broken. As with seeking a divorce, setting out to break an entail required finding a cause, and then using one’s wealth and influence, and seeking the intervention of Parliament. Unfortunately, few had the necessary means for success.
Common Questions about Austenian Heroines and the Right of Primogeniture
Primogeniture signifies that the eldest son is, by default, his father’s heir at law—the one who will inherit property.
In Jane Austen‘s Emma, Frank Churchill was presumably born with the name Frank Weston but took his wealthy aunt’s surname.
In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Norland, the Dashwood estate, is secured by its owner to his live-in nephew, Mr. Dashwood, and after that, to his eldest son, John Dashwood, and then after that secured to his charming little son.