Primogeniture and Inheritance and the Need for a Widow’s Pension in Jane Austen’s Novels

By Jane Austen’s time, primogeniture was no longer the law of the land, but it remained a strongly entrenched custom of inheritance proceedings. Breaking apart large landholdings were frowned upon. An impoverished aristocracy, whose wealth rested in the agricultural realm, would lead to total chaos in the countryside or so it was assumed. The practice of primogeniture, with the family’s holdings going to the the eldest son, made paupers of younger sons or forced them to seek gainful employment in a handful of occupations: the army, the navy, the church, or law. (Medicine was not as well accepted as were the other four, but a some “gentlemen” chose the occupation.) 

mrbennet.gif But what occurred if there were no sons to inherit, as in the case of Mr. Bennet in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion? Under English law, women were subordinate to their husbands. It was expected that she was under the “protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord.” The law stated the old adage of “two shall become one.” She was her husband’s “feme covert.” Any property she owned—real or personal—came under his control. A married woman could not draft a will or dispose of any property without her husband’s consent.

Women rarely inherited property (land). They could inherit “personal” belongings such as, furniture, jewelry, clothing, moveable goods, etc. But that does not mean that a woman could NOT inherit real property (meaning land, or what we now call “real estate”). The practice of primogeniture under English law presented the oldest son with the real property upon the death of the father. A “fee tail male” was the legal means to present the “entail” through the male line. It was possible for a father and his son to join forces to eliminate the entail. This would give the current owner something called “fee simple,” meaning ownership could be bequeathed without restrictions. In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a “fee tail male” agreement results in the Dashwood ladies’ displacement from their family home. Mr. Dashwood’s estate goes to the son of his first marriage. A “fee tail male” agreement also affects Mr. Bennet’s situation. Bennet is the life tenant of the Longbourn estate. Whichever of his ancestors created the fee tail male agreement is never identified. The entail that controls the Bennet estate (better known legally as “the remainder”) expires upon his death if he had no male heirs. The reader is told in Pride and Prejudice that Mr. Bennet had hoped to have a son [who could have joined with Bennet in terminating the fee tail male arrangement]. Unless Mrs. Bennet predeceasing her husband, and Bennet remarries and produces a son, the remainder [the property] would go his closest male relative: Mr. Collins. 

Daughters could only inherit in the absence of a male heir. The law of intestate primogeniture remained on the statue books in Britain until the 1925 property legislation simplified and updated England’s archaic law of real property. Aware of their daughters’ unfortunate situation, fathers often provided them with dowries or worked into a prenuptial agreement pin money, the estate which the wife was to possess for her sole and separate use not subject to the control of her husband, to provide her with an income separate from his.

prideandprejudice_126-e1431533593682.jpg In Mrs. Bennet’s case, her “nerves” make her both a comic and a sympathetic character. In reality, her ranting against the establishment was the lady’s only means to express her frustration. With the passing of her husband, she and any daughters that are not married will be out of their home. She will have no income other that the money settled upon her at her marriage. Locating suitable housing for a woman of her station with five dependents would be difficult. Her £4000 would likely yield only £200 to £250 yearly. Her situation would be more dire than the Dashwoods.

bts_poster_costumes.jpg “For example, in Sense and Sensibility, the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters do not inherit the great Dashwood estate, Norland, because the owner, Uncle Dashwood, suddenly changes his will and leaves it to his grandnephew. He does this for two reasons: The grandnephew is cute, and he will carry on the Dashwood surname, keeping Norland in Dashwood hands. So the four Dashwood women now must live on £500 annually (SS 1:2). Now while this does not put them on the street, this sum doesn’t give them the life they lived at Norland Park, a beautiful and spacious gentry estate with a large house attached to it. They must move to a cottage with moderate rent. And their social life is limited to where their feet can take them because they can’t afford a carriage and horse. A visit to London is out of the question financially, unless a friend covers their expenses. And their chances of landing a financially stable marriage are lessened by the daughters each having a dowry of only £1,000, their Uncle having given each girl that amount (and their inability to get out often to meet people)….The Dashwood ladies have a cottage at a very moderate rent; they have two maids and a man servant, whose pay would have been quite low; they have neither carriage nor horse; the four Dashwoods probably have limited wardrobes; and they appear to get quite a bit of food from Sir John Middleton, on whose estate they live. This amount would allow them to live in a minimally genteel way.” [Ray, Joan Klingel. Jane Austen for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006. 133-34.]


Mrs. Norris 1983 Anna Massey

From Jane Stabler [Explanatory Notes. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Oxford’s World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, 396-397.], we learn, “In Austen’s day, £600 a year is a comfortable income for someone who is careful with his money (and there is no doubt Aunt Norris’s extreme caution in this respect). Austen’s pinpointing of Aunt Norris’s income makes it clear that she can afford to employ three servants to help with the running of the White house so her exploitation of Fanny is mean, as well as cruel.”

In contrast to wives, women who never married or who were widowed maintained control over their property and inheritance, owned land and controlled property disposal, since by law any unmarried adult female was considered to be a feme soleSome of the peeresses, in their own right had property, as well as the title which the husband couldn’t touch. Still, inheritance through the female of a peerage by patent was  extremely rare and usually only put into the patent while the 1st peer was alive. Usually, the patents didn’t allow for female inheritance. It was rare for a woman to be able to inherit a peerage created by patent. The Duke of Marlborough had his patent changed when it was obvious he would not have a son, but that was a rare occurrence. Most females succeeded to a lesser peerage created by writ. Once married, the only way that women could reclaim property was through widowhood.

I have completed a series of articles on Primogeniture for this blog if you wish to know more. You will find them at the links below: 

The Effects of Primogeniture and Family Dynamics

Female Inheritance Laws

Gavelkind, Inheritance in Opposition to Primogeniture

The Popularity of Primogeniture During the Regency Period

Primogeniture and the 19th Century Entail

Primogeniture? Collateral Relatives? The First Laws of Inheritance…

The Roots of Primogeniture and Entails

Statue of Wills, Henry VII’s Answer to Primogeniture



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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