From The Jane Austen Information Page

Entail and Inheritance

“Her husband, however, would not agree with her here; for… his cousin Charles Hayter was an eldest son, and he saw things as an eldest son himself.”
— Persuasion, Chapter 9

“Sir William Mountague was the son of Sir Henry Mountague, who was the son of Sir John Mountague, a descendant of Sir Christopher Mountague, who was the nephew of Sir Edward Mountague, whose ancestor was Sir James Mountague, a near relation of Sir Robert Mountague, who inherited the Title & Estate from Sir Frederic Mountague.”
— Sir William Mountague

An entail was a legal device used to prevent a landed property from being broken up, and/or from descending in a female line. This is a logical extension of the then-prevalent practice of leaving the bulk of one’s wealth (particularly real estate) to one’s eldest son or “heir”(thus Darcy has an income of £10,000 a year, representing a wealth of about £200,000, while his sister has £30,000; similarly, Bingley has £100,000, and his two sisters £20,000 apiece).

Male Primogeniture Succession

Entailed property is usually inherited by male primogeniture, in more or less the same way as are some titles of nobility — i.e. by the nearest male-line descendant (son of son etc.) of the original owner of the estate or title, whose ancestry in each generation goes through the eldest son who has left living male-line descendants (thus the male-line descendants of the second son of an owner will not have a chance to inherit until all the male-line descendants of the eldest son have died out). So, for example, Mr. Elliot is the heir to Sir Walter in Persuasion. Entailment also prevents a father from disinheriting his eldest son — a factor in Lady Susan (father to son: “You know… that it is out of my power to prevent your inheriting the family Estate.“). Women generally inherit only if there are no male-line heirs left, and if there is more than one sister, then they are all equal co-heiresses, rather than only the eldest inheriting.

The following diagram may help illustrate the mysterious workings of such an entail; the original possessor of the estate is at the top of the diagram, males are denoted by “M”, females by “F”, the current (male) owner of the estate by “X”, siblings are arranged left-to-right from eldest to youngest, and the potential heirs to the estate upon the death of “X” are numbered in the order of successsion (potential co-heiress-ships are shown by several women being given the same number):

                             |           |          |       |
                           M(dead)      F(12)      M(7)    M(9)
                             |                      |
         +------------+--------+------+------+     M(8)
         |            |        |      |      |
         X           M(1)    F(11)   M(5)   F(11)
         |            |               |
     +------+      +-----+           M(6)
     |      |      |     |
    F(10)  F(10)  M(2)  M(4)

Note that the technical interpretation of this chart is that, given this family configuration, the individual numbered (1) is the immediate heir of the man labeled “X”; but if (1) died before “X”, then (2) would be X’s immediate heir; and if (1) and (2) died before “X”, then (3) would be X’s immediate heir, and so on down the line (i.e. if all individuals labelled with numbers (1)-(11) were to die before “X”, then the individual numbered (12) would be X’s immediate heir).

The motivation for entails

The following is an edited version of a post to AUSTEN-L:

Date: Sun, 22 Sep 1996 14:23:53 -0400
From: John Hopfner

Let me start with the disclaimer that I’m neither a lawyer nor a legal historian. The following is my best understanding of the facts from British history, but I almost certainly am overgeneralizing in some cases.

In order to understand entails, the first thing to consider is the importance that ownership of land had, both in the England of Jane Austen’s time and in England for centuries previous to her day. Ownership of land wasn’t just an ornament to the family (in the way that a collection of paintings or a library might be considered an ornament). Land was what made a family part of the aristocracy or gentry. Ownership of land produced an income that was steady, predictable, and recurring. That income was what freed the family from the necessity to earn their living by daily effort. It freed them to secure and enjoy an education, to — as they chose — dabble in the arts and sciences, become involved in politics, or lead a life of idleness and refinement. This gave ownership of land a cachet that went beyond ownership of cash or movable goods. A landed estate was The Patrimony — it conferred status in society, not just on one person for one generation, but on the family so long as it lasted.

This fact wasn’t lost on members of the gentry and aristocracy. Nor were they blind to two real dangers that threaten a landed estate: dissipation by sale, if the head of the family at any point in time (a wastrel, say, or a foolish speculator) were to sell his land to raise funds, and then fritter away the sales proceeds; and subdivision (if an estate were divided equally between all sons or children over several generations, then a single Patrimony, sufficient to make its holder a gentleman and member of the gentry, becomes a multitude of smaller patrimonies that, individually, don’t qualify his descendents for the same social status).

The result is that the whole family sinks into obscurity, which was held to be a bad thing. The answer to this problem is primogeniture among male heirs, which keeps The Patrimony itself intact and under the control of the head of the family in each generation — though at the cost of unfairness to other surviving children of the family head.

If the family head dies without sons, then by operation of common law, the estate would be inherited equally by all the man’s daughters. If there were several daughters, they each would inherit an equal share, and the subdivision problem occurs. But even if the head of the family died leaving only one daughter, the daughter almost surely will marry — and at her death her heirs would be, presumably, the children she had with her husband. Which means that the “Bennet” patrimony ceases to exist, and becomes part of the Darcy or Bingley estates (for example). Nobody in the Bennet line would consider the prospect of this to be a good thing, and so the answer was to make provision to extend primogeniture to the entire male line, not just to the male sons of a given holder of a landed estate.

Legal aspects of entails

The law behind entails showed the usual British legal tendency to accumulation of complexity over time, so that only a true expert could explain all the arcane ramifications (for example, in Jane Austen’s period what was called an “entail” was technically a “strict settlement”), but it may be mentioned that entails had to be periodically renewed, and could be “broken” with the consent of a heir who has come of age (cf. Chapter 50: “When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for”).

If Mr. Collins were to leave only daughters on his death, and there were no further patrilineal heirs lurking in the wings behind Mr. Collins, I don’t know whether Longbourn would then actually revert to the Bennet daughters upon the death of Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins (as would be predicted by strict application of the principle of seniority); it’s certainly an intriguing possibility (though if the entail were considered to have come to an end with the death of the last male-line heir, then the estate would be divided among Mr. Collins’s daughters by the normal operation of common law).

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