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Readers and watchers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are familiar with Mr. Collins. From his awkward proposal to his cousin Elizabeth to his reverent awe for Lady Catherine de Bourgh, he’s an infamous classic literature character. His most notorious villainy is that he’ll inherit Longbourn as soon as Mr. Bennet dies and kick all his cousins out to starve in the hedge grove. But, have you ever wondered, why will he inherit Longbourn? Nobody likes this guy. Who left the house to him?
Those are great questions. Let’s answer them by discussing Pride and Prejudice inheritance laws.
Pride and Prejudice Inheritance Laws
Inheritance laws can be complicated, so let’s break down two basic terms to know about Jane Austen and inheritance. They are:
Primogeniture aka Why Being The First Born Son Is Awesome
The definition of primogeniture encapsulates the concept that a firstborn son has the right to inherit the vast majority of the family’s wealth, land, and titles. This idea of firstborn-son-take-all inheritance has defined thousands of years of English history. So, if you’re a firstborn son, you love tradition like primogeniture. It’s less beloved if you’re any of the other children in the family.
But have you ever wondered who first thought up this idea? Was it some firstborn son who didn’t like his other siblings?
Well, maybe. But primogeniture was popular because it preserved a family’s legacy. Families in Regency England were long-term thinkers. They wanted to ensure their family’s high social status, not just for today but also for generations to come.
How do you preserve your family’s legacy for generations? Well, you’d start by fighting off something called subdivision, or the division of your wealth into smaller and smaller amounts over time.
For example, if a rich man with five kids divides his wealth equally among them, he’d have five somewhat rich kids. When those kids have kids, he now has a lot of not-very-rich grandkids. Within just a few generations, the family’s name, wealth, and social standing have decreased dramatically.
However, if a rich man has five kids and gives his riches to his firstborn son, then his son is rich, and the family name continues in style.
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What about the other children of the family?
If you’re a daughter, you hope to marry someone rich and of the same or superior social standing as your family. This would preserve your place in the social order through marriage.
Younger sons without an inheritance had to get a job. Of course, they’d choose a genteel occupation. For example, Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey and Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park both became clergymen. Meanwhile, John Knightly, in Emma, becomes a lawyer. You can learn more about appropriate genteel occupations in this video about being a Gentleman or Lady in Regency England.
Younger sons also did their best to marry rich heiresses and get more money that way. Of course, a younger son’s ultimate windfall would occur if his older brother died and he was next in line to inherit.
So, again, what is primogeniture? It is the concept that those of Regency England use to preserve their family’s name and social standing by keeping their family’s wealth intact through leaving it to the firstborn son.
Primogeniture, however, was just an idea that most families used at the time. If they wanted to, they could go against tradition and give their land to whoever they wanted. Which some saw as a problem.
After all, imagine you’re a gentleman who has fought long and hard to guarantee your family’s place in society through land and wealth. Do you want to think about some possible future great-grandson who decides to throw caution to the wind, give his ten children an equal inheritance, and lose everything you worked for? No, you don’t.
So that is why some families used a legal contract called an entail to ensure that the next generation would follow primogeniture principles. Several different types of entails existed with varying specificity levels of who could or could not inherit the estate. But basically, they all had the aim to keep the next generation from breaking up the family wealth by dividing it.
Jane Austen Examples
For example, let’s look at the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice.
Mr. Bennet’s estate is called Longborn. Mr. Bennet inherited the estate under an entail that specified that he could only leave the estate to a male member of the family. At first, that didn’t worry him, since he planned to have a son who would inherit the estate. But he never had a son. Instead, five daughters, all who could not inherit the estate, showed up. Which meant, according to the entail, that the next nearest male relative would inherit Longbourn instead. That relative? Mr. Collins.
This same entail prevented Mr. Bennet from selling off or otherwise breaking up the estate during his time there. He essentially just had a life share in this estate.
We see the same principle at play in Sense and Sensibility. Here the Uncle’s will makes it binding on the Dashwood family that the oldest son will inherit Norland Park and that Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret’s father cannot break up the estate or leaving any of it to his daughters.
It’s also at play in Austen’s Persuasion, where the slimy cousin Mr. Elliot is set to inherit Sir Elliot’s estate and title.
Yet, not all estates in Austen’s novels have legal entailments on them, or their entailments have looser restrictions that allow for women to inherit. There are plenty of examples of families free to leave their estates to who they wish, including daughters.
For example, Infamous Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s estate will go to her daughter Anne in Pride and Prejudice.
Mr. Woodhouse, in Emma, is leaving his estate equally divided to his two daughters.
In Emma, the Churchills adopted Frank Weston to inherit their estate instead of leaving it to the next person in their bloodline.
Why will Mr. Collins Inherit?
So, why is Mr. Collins going to inherit Longbourn? Because a legal entail based on the principles of primogeniture says, he will.
So as soon as Mr. Bennet dies, he can move right in, kick his cousins out and enjoy all the excellent boiled potatoes he wants.
Featured photo from Pride and Prejudice 1995.
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