The Entail that Drives a Novel

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our spring/summer MainStage production of Pride and Prejudice.

“I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children, I am sure, if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”
-Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

The entail provides the source of drama in a number of British novels. For fans of the British television series Downton Abbey it is still providing drama.

A modern and American sensibility may find the concept of an entail outrageous; both the favoring of an oldest child and the exclusion of daughters is offensive to any democratic notions. Mrs. Bennet’s lines above while a joke to Austen’s readers may actually sound like a good question to modern readers.

The entail or fee tail is a legal contract which settles the succession of an estate and its farmlands on the next male heir. It prevents the current holder of the estate from selling it or determining an alternate heir. The estate was entailed by one generation to the male heir of the next generation. In essence, Mr. Bennet has only a life interest in his estate. If Mr. Bennet owned the estate outright, as Mr. Darcy owns his estate, it would be a fee simple. Since Mr. and Mrs. Bennet did not plan for this contingency and did not live frugally they are in a situation where it is imperative that their daughters marry well or they will be destitute. This is only one of the consequences of a fee tail. Often owners of landed estates saw increasing debt but could not sell any of the lands to settle those debts. This led to the popularity of marrying American heiresses, such as Cora in Downton Abbey or as depicted in the Edith Wharton novel The Buccaneers.

What is particularly remarkable about most entails is that they legally had to be renewed each generation, but the younger generation would agree to the entail or be disinherited. However, Mr. Bennet would never have imagined he might not have a son.

The Bennet daughters would have always known and understood about the entail. In fact they try, in vain, to explain it to their mother.

“Jane and Elizabeth tried to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted to do it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond reach of reason, and she continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favor of a man whom nobody cared anything about.”
Pride and Prejudice

In a book in which both the entail and the financial circumstances of the characters are featured so prominently it is important to understand how income and the circumstances in which wealth was earned were matters of common knowledge in Regency England. The novel tells us that the Bennets have an income of 2,000 pounds a year, Bingley 5,000 and Darcy 10,000. To put this in perspective, an American visiting Regency England suggested 3,000 pounds a year would be necessary to entertain in style and 6,000 pounds a year would be preferable. The average farm laborer in 1810 received £15-20 per year.

The wealth of most families was in land and property. Annual income for wealthy families would primarily be in rents from tenant farmers so owning a lot of farmable land is desirable for any wealthy family. These property owners are referred to as the landed gentry. Lizzy is a gentleman’s daughter because Mr. Bennet has never had to work for his income. Being “in trade” means doing some form of work to make money. While “being in trade” becomes a point used against Lizzy Bennets Aunts and Uncles it is important to note that the Bingleys’ fortune was acquired through trade. It is a large fortune and they are of the next generation that has not had to work. Austen describes Bingley’s sisters as follows:

“They were of a respectable family in the North of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.”

Scholar Sandra Macpherson persuasively argues in her article on the entail that Austen was well-aware of these legal nuances and that the novel makes use of these legal short term and long term obligations.

While Lizzy Bennet jokes with her sister Jane that her affection for Mr. Darcy started after seeing his beautiful estate at Pemberley, the underpinnings of this romantic novel and its marriage plot are decidedly tied to the stability or instability of an estate.

Sources: Our Tempestuous Day, Carolly Erickson; What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool; “Rent to Own; or What’s Entailed in Pride and Prejudice?”
Sandra Macpherson, Representations, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 1-23.