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Topic: A question for the Janeites on English inheritance law

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Subject: A question for the Janeites on English inheritance law
Date Posted: 2/14/2008 3:35 PM ET
Member Since: 8/12/2005
Posts: 809
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I am reading Sense and Sensibility, my first Jane Austen novel, and I'm having some trouble understanding the male primogeniture laws that play such an important part in the plot.

My main question is: If English law mandated estates be passed through the male line and always inherited by the eldest sons, how do the rich heiresses in the novel (Fanny Dashwood and her mother, Miss Sophia Grey) come by their wealth?

I would appreciate it if anyone could point me toward any resources for understanding these laws.

Date Posted: 2/14/2008 5:02 PM ET
Member Since: 1/18/2007
Posts: 530
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From my understanding, the title passes down the male line, but money can be left to a female. That is why when a lord or earl etc dies and he has no sons, the title goes to the next closest male heir, grandson, cousin etc.

A lot of women were left money by wealthy parents, aunts, godmothers etc. They can be extremely wealthy but not allowed to keep the actual estate.

 I hope this helps.

Date Posted: 2/14/2008 6:11 PM ET
Member Since: 2/7/2008
Posts: 309
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My understanding of it (admittedly limited, and gleaned from Georgette Heyer novels!) is that an estate would pass to the eldest child, male or female, but you can choose to make it pass to the eldest male child. The estate is 'entailed' , thus forcing you to find a male cousin etc etc . See the Bennets situation in Pride and Prejudice for an example.

I think that titles - Lords, Dukes etc etc always need to go to a male heir but estates and money could be passed to girls.

Hope that helps!



Date Posted: 2/14/2008 8:57 PM ET
Member Since: 8/12/2005
Posts: 809
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I did some Googling on this, and here's how I understand things to work based on what I found, and on a more careful reading of relevant passages of Sense and Sensibility:

Primogeniture was no longer mandated by law in Austen's time, but it was still a common custom among the aristocracy and gentry. The whole idea was to keep an estate from being broken up into smaller parcels and to keep it in the family. People in the middle and upper classes lived off the wealth generated by their lands (from cultivation and raising livestock, I assume). If a landowner divided his land among his children, each piece would generate less income than the whole, and eventually a family could no longer live off the income.

A landowner (such as Henry Dashwood's uncle) would write his will in such a way that his firstborn son (or in the uncle's case, his nearest male relative) was not free to pass on the property to whomever he liked. In Sense and Sensibility, the uncle's will mandates that Henry Dashwood must, at his death, leave Norland Park to his son, John. John is then obligated by the original will to pass the estate to his son in turn. Because of the terms of the uncle's will, Henry Dashwood could not leave the estate to his daughters instead of his son, even though his daughters needed the inheritance much more than their brother.

This custom left women dependant on the benevolence of their male relatives. Some landowners would leave bequests of cash to their widows and daughters to support them after their deaths. In Sense and Sensibility, Henry Dashwood intends to be frugal with the income generated by Norland Park during his lifetime, so that he can leave enough money to his widow and daughters to support them in comfort. However, because he dies within a year of inheriting the estate, the women are left dependant on the charity of John Dashwood, who is persuaded by his wife not to give them anything.

This is how I understand it now, at least. Am I close, or am I way off base?

Last Edited on: 2/14/08 9:00 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 2/18/2008 1:47 PM ET
Member Since: 6/28/2007
Posts: 230
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That's it, Felicia. 

I think that the implication in Sense and Sensibility is that Fanny Dashwood's family are not "landed" but that the family made its money "in trade".  Therefore, each child has money that is generating income in interest but no land that is providing income via rents and agriculture.   Sophia Grey could have been the child of parents with enough cash to leave her a large mobile inheritance, or from a family whose estate was not entailed and could therefore be settled on a daughter.

Date Posted: 2/18/2008 9:58 PM ET
Member Since: 1/4/2008
Posts: 389
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Wow!  You guys are so smart!  =0)

I guess I never thought it through in so much detail. Thanks for the lesson in "Austen Economics"!