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Accessing Austen Part 4: Old Maids and Entailments

Mr. Bingley, Jane, Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth at their double-wedding ceremony in <em>Pride and Prejudice</em>
Mr. Bingley, Jane, Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth at their double-wedding ceremony in Pride and Prejudice

When students read Pride and Prejudice, they often have difficulty understanding why Mr. Collins will inherit Mr. Bennet’s estate when he has five daughters who might inherit.  They also wonder why Elizabeth would be encouraged to marry her cousin, Mr. Collins.  That’s just … ew … right?  The answer to both of these mysteries is, essentially, money.

Austen writes of a very real problem for women in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Their only prospects for support were the families of their birth, if they remained single, or their husbands.  Women had little opportunity to support themselves, as so many occupations were closed to them; therefore, it was very important for women to marry well.  In Austen’s era, the eldest son inherited property through a system known as entailment, which not only prevented the property from being broken up, but also prevented fathers from disinheriting their eldest sons or passing their property on to their daughters.  If property is passed through entailment, readers might wonder why Mr. Collins has a different last name from Mr. Bennet.  This circumstance may be due to the fact that Mr. Collins (or an ancestor) changed his name because he was designated an heir of another relation.  In Emma, Frank is known by the last name Churchill (rather than Weston) upon being adopted by his aunt.  He is designated the heir of his aunt and uncle.  Jane Austen’s brother Edward changed his name from Austen to Knight when he was named heir of a cousin named “Knight,” and later on her nephew, James Austen, became known as James Austen-Leigh under similar circumstances.  Take a look at this explanation of the Collins entailment for more information.

Mr. Collins would be an attractive husband for his daughters in Mr. Bennet’s eyes because his estate would still pass on to one of his own children, after a fashion, if Mr. Collins became his son-in-law.  At this time, it was not unheard of for women to marry second or even first cousins.  In fact, if most of us trace our family trees back to the 1700’s, it is more likely than not that we will find ancestors who married their cousins.  It was a really good way of keeping property in the family, and at that time the relations were considered distant enough.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh famously insulted Elizabeth because she had plans for her own daughter, Anne, who is Mr. Darcy’s first cousin, to marry Mr. Darcy.  Perhaps our modern sensibilities challenge the notion that marriage between cousins is acceptable, but we also aren’t faced with the same lack of eligible and proper spouses that Austen’s characters often were.  At any rate, Mr. Collins is described as a distant relative, and his exact connection to Mr. Bennet is not clear.

Entailments were one reason why it was so important for women to marry.  Jane Austen’s own family included one sister and six brothers.  The two sisters (Jane and Cassandra) never married, and they had to rely on their parents and later their brothers for support.  Of course, Jane earned some money after her novels were published, but not only would it not have been proper for her to set up a house for herself, but it also would not probably have been possible.  The precarious situation of women who didn’t marry is probably best described in Emma in reference to Miss Bates, whom Emma insults at a picnic on Box Hill.  Emma’s insult prompts Mr. Knightley to remind Emma of Miss Bates’ situation:

“Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it.  I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates?  How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?– Emma, I had not thought it possible.”

Mr. Knightley continues later in the conversation:

“I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good.  Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner.  Were she your equal in situation– but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case.  She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more.  Her situation should secure your compassion.  It was badly done, indeed!”

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot finds herself in an unpleasant situation because she is unmarried.  When the Elliot family removes to Bath, Anne is compelled to move as well — despite the fact that Bath is her last choice —  because though she is 27, she is unmarried and depends upon her family for support.  What’s more, at 27 and 29 respectively, Anne and her sister Elizabeth’s prospects for finding a husband are looking fairly dismal.  Contrary to popular belief, women didn’t necessarily marry at 15 or 16, but they did tend to marry in their early 20’s (anthropologically speaking, this is sound, as women are most fertile at that age).

Wealthier families could often afford to give their daughters money when they married; thus, it was preferable for men, too, to find a wealthy wife who would bring money into the marriage.  In Northanger Abbey, both John and Isabella Thorpe become disenchanted with Catherine and James Morland once they find out marrying into the Morland family won’t bring them the money they were hoping for after seeing the Allens’ wealth and leaping to conclusions.  Later, General Tilney throws Catherine out on her ear when he discovers she doesn’t have what he considers enough money to marry his son Henry.  Lack of money to bring to a marriage is what makes the Bennet girls and the Dashwood girls in Sense and Sensibility fearful of their prospects of making a good marriage.

In presenting these concerns about marriage and money, Austen was painting an accurate picture of a woman’s place in her time.  I think it is a very good thing that our students have difficulty understanding why making a good marriage (by that, I mean marrying a wealthy man or woman) was so important in Austen’s novels.  It means that times have changed, and now it is much easier for a us to marry for love or even not to marry, for, in Jane Austen’s own words (in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight), “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love.”

This post is the fourth in a series on teaching Jane Austen’s novels.