As I begin my journey through the published novels of Jane Austen, the first stop is Sense & Sensibility. As with so many of these novels, the conflict to the heroines is immediately introduced through the problems of inheritance. The Dashwood women, Elinor and Marianne in particular, are children of a second marriage, and this alone places them in a delicate and dangerous position. But it’s not as simple as the oldest son inheriting, which is essentially what primogeniture is all about: primacy of the first born (son), and which was itself merely a catch-all should there be no will. In S&S there was indeed a will, which “like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure” (Austen 4), an experience Jane’s own family shared.
For those who have not read S&S recently or perhaps know the work best through one of its adaptations, the malleability of inheritance and will-making is lost. It’s not simply that Mr. Dashwood Sr. inherited from his father and had to pass it to his son, the child of his first marriage. Instead, things are a fair bit more complicated. In fact, Mr. Dashwood Sr. moved into the house he was to inherit from an elderly uncle while that uncle was still living. The three daughters of Mr. Dashwood’s marriage became a “relish to [the uncle’s] existence” (Austen 3), but when John Dashwood the younger married and had a child of his own, this small child, the great-great-nephew to the original owner of Norland Park so delighted his elderly uncle that the uncle rewrote his will in such a way as to leave Norland Park in its entirety to the child, passing over Mr. Dashwood and his son. Of course, it was understood that both the grandfather and father would live and manage the estate (a life interest), but the true owner from the time of the uncle’s death would be a child of four years old.
At first, the second set of Dashwoods were quite let down by this revelation of the altered will, but Mr. Dashwood Sr., a man in his middle years with a couple decades ahead of him, believed he had time enough to put by additional funds from the estate’s income to supplement what little fortune they had received in the will (a thousand pounds apiece). As a steward rather than a fully entitled owner, he could not sell off any part of the estate and there were likely some strictures on how he could use the land – i.e. whether he could harvest timber from the forest, etc. – but the income of the estate was his to use or set by as he chose. Alas, he lived only one year beyond the death of this uncle.
THAT, reader, is what really ruined the Misses Dashwood. The fickleness of an elderly male relative and the societal preference for male children, particularly those with “an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise” (Austen 4). Read: spoiled and poorly-disciplined, a trait that Aunt Jane was known to give short shrift amongst her own nieces and nephews.
But also, untimely death. We must consider that Mrs. Dashwood is herself only 40 years old at her husband’s death, and there are hints later when Colonel Brandon comes onto the scene that Mrs. Dashwood may herself have been about 17 and Mr. Dashwood around 35 when they married. Therefore, at the time of his death, he was likely only in his middle to late 50s.
But what has struck me is the variable nature of inheritance. Almost always, fortunes are left to male children (Miss de Bourgh comes to mind as one whose father went through the effort to ensure she inherited – and even so, her husband would actually get full legal control of that inheritance if she ever married). However, primogeniture was itself only the rule if an estate was left intestate – the natural order was to give it all to the oldest living male relative. But if a will was created, the creator could do just about anything he or she wanted to the estate. Here’s an article which more fully explores various Myths about Regency Era Inheritance.
Jane’s own family experienced the fickleness of inherited fortune in August of 1806. At this point in time, Jane’s father had died five years before and she, Cassandra, and their mother had had to leave Bath after sinking further and further into impoverished circumstances and socially-scorned addresses. She was also unpublished. She was entirely reliant upon her brothers for a home and whatever they might pass to her after taking care of their own large and ever-growing families. So at this time, Jane and her mother travelled to Stoneleigh Abbey at the death of a distant relation, hoping that the will would produce some good. Sadly, as noted earlier, the will produced disappointment, but no pleasure for the Austen women. More on this can be learned here from my absolute favorite British historian: Lucy Worsley.
Now, we know that S&S was one of Jane’s earliest written adult works, completed in about 1795 (Jane would have been 20 years old), then reworked in 1797 to transform it from its earlier epistolary form into the more traditional novel structure we know today, and finally published in 1811. As a writer, what I have to ask is: how much did Jane revise that work after the events of 1806? It feels fairly obvious to me that Jane amalgamated all her life’s experiences and all the people who populated it, taking different events or traits and combining them into plot points and character arcs.
Did this 1806 disappointment – which must have been severe, we should acknowledge, considering how very dire her situation was – influence her thoughts on inheritance throughout the rest of her novels, to the extent that she rewrote various components to incorporate this event? Or alternately, was the experience of disappointing inheritances so commonplace that Austen had a multitude to draw on from friends, relations, and the odd story passed round the fire? It’s hard to say, though, the explanation of how the Dashwood hopes were dashed takes up only the first 3 paragraphs of the novel entire; and therefore, from what I know of my own revisions, it’s entirely possible that Jane adjusted the opening of her novel to amplify the conflicts for the Dashwood sisters, as well as heighten the tension between themselves and their elder brother.
Now, here are a few additional resources which relate to these ideas:
Jane Austen’s World on Primogeniture
JASNA: Legal Issues in Austen’s Life and Novels
And finally a video that appears to cover many of these ideas (probably much better than I), though I haven’t watched this yet…
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