|"Passion subdued by Reason." The Lady's Magazine, March 1795.|
This is the first in a series of monthly posts focussing on the social contexts of the six novels Jane Austen prepared for publication. These posts will accompany my own re-reading of the novels, and my hope is that they may inspire your own reading or re-reading. This time: Sense and Sensibility (1811).
Questions of inheritance are central to all of Austen's novels, but are particularly fundamental to Sense and Sensibility. The book opens, in fact, with a description of a will: that of Henry Dashwood's rich uncle.
The old gentleman died: his will was read, and like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure. He was neither so unjust, nor so ungrateful, as to leave his estate from his nephew;—but he left it to him on such terms as destroyed half the value of the bequest. Mr. Dashwood had wished for it more for the sake of his wife and daughters than for himself or his son;—but to his son, and his son's son, a child of four years old, it was secured, in such a way, as to leave to himself no power of providing for those who were most dear to him…. The uncle's estate, Norland Park, is bequeathed to John Dashwood, Henry's well-to-do son by his first wife, as a trustee for his own son.
Why does the uncle bypass Henry in his will? In Austen's England land was economic, social, and political power, and estate owners wanted to ensure that family land, and thus power, would remain intact. Under the principle of primogeniture, the eldest son inherited the vast bulk of the land, houses, and associated income from an estate (although other members of the family could be granted inheritances of cash and securities, personal property, or annual incomes). 
In the absence of an eldest son—the rich uncle in Sense and Sensibility is childless—an estate could be bequeathed to a relative (usually male) in a collateral line. After the death of its owner, the estate would be held in trust for the future heir, who would inherit either when he came of age, when he got married, or on the death of an intermediate possessor. That intermediate possessor was prevented from selling any part of the estate or bequeathing it elsewhere. (This is the situation in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, where the Bennet and Elliot family estates have been entailed on male cousins.)
A wife did not automatically inherit her husband's property. It was common for her at the time of her marriage to receive a jointure (typically, a life interest in the rental income from a portion of the estate designated to support her after her husband's death). She could only inherit an estate as a freehold if her husband made that provision in his will. There are two wealthy widows in Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Ferrars and Mrs Smith, both of whom control the disposition of their estates.
Daughters could inherit, and in the absence of a will, entail or settlement they would be considered heiresses if there were no son. But daughters, unlike sons, inherited in common. In Emma, Austen's fourth novel, the heroine Emma Woodhouse and her elder sister Isabella are the co-heiresses of their father's estate, Hartfield. But it was rare for estates to be divided among siblings in this way, because if the practice continued the subsequent generations in each branch of the family would receive smaller and smaller portions of the original estate as it became divided among more and more descendants.
Clearly, the uncle in Sense and Sensibility does not want Norland to be divided among Henry Dashwood's three daughters. Both Henry and his son John apparently receive life tenancies; the true heir is John's son. We're told that "the whole was tied up for the benefit of this child, who, in occasional visits with his father and mother at Norland, had so far gained on the affections of his uncle...as to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters." 
As a tenant for life Henry is unable, "by any charge on the estate, or by any sale of its valuable woods," to ensure that his wife and daughters receive an income from the estate after his death.  Those with only life interests were forbidden from setting up a jointure ("a charge on the estate") or from selling any part of an estate (including its "valuable woods"). The uncle's estate must be held intact.
So when Henry himself dies—an untimely event which occurs within a year and in the very next paragraph—John, as trustee for his son, receives all the land of the estate and its associated income. (Later in the novel we learn that John plans to cut down a grove of old walnut trees on the estate in order to build a greenhouse. If he were only a life tenant, he would seem to be barred from cutting down trees. However, exceptions were made if trees were to be cut down for either firewood or in the course of "improvements" to the estate, and John portrays the building of a greenhouse and the planting of a flower garden as improvements. We can guess, though, that the greedy John is likely to profit handsomely; walnut was and is a wood highly prized by cabinetmakers.)
Unable to pass on the Norland estate to his wife, Henry could only bequeath his personal property ("china, plate, and linen" ) and his personal fortune of £7000. Combined with the daughters' bequests from their uncle of £1000 each, that means that Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters have a total capital of about £10,000. This sum would translate into an annual income of about £500 (exactly how will be discussed in the section "Money," along with the adequacy of this income for a family of the Dashwood's social standing).
On Henry's death John and his family can and do take immediate possession of Norland. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters Elinor, Marianne and Margaret suddenly find themselves guests in the home that was once theirs, a situation that proves to be anything but comfortable. The Dashwood women are placed in a position of irksome dependency on John and his mercenary and controlling wife Fanny. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters ultimately find it impossible to continue to live at Norland, and move to Barton Cottage, on the Devonshire estate of their relative Sir John Middleton.
The move separates Elinor from Edward Ferrars, Fanny's brother. Edward has been visiting his sister and her family, and as a result has come to know Elinor. Fanny's harshly disapproving reaction to the discovery of their growing attachment is what precipitates the move from Norland. That move not only disrupts the nascent relationship of Edward and Elinor, it also takes Marianne into the neighborhood of the young, handsome, but rakish gentleman Willoughby, and the older, more upright and more reticent Colonel Brandon. Both men—Willoughby openly, and Brandon silently—fall in love with the vivacious Marianne. The story begins.
"I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but, like every body else it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so."Money changes everything, as a philosopher once said. And in Sense and Sensibility, the financial standing of every character is known, weighed and discussed openly by the other characters. To make sense of this information, it's helpful to understand something about how, in Austen's day, capital was converted into income, and what differing levels of income might mean. 
"Strange that it would!" cried Marianne. "What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?"
"Grandeur has but little," said Elinor, "but wealth has much to do with it."
"Elinor, for shame!" said Marianne, "money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned."
"Perhaps," said Elinor, smiling, "we may come to the same point. Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?"
"About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than that."
Elinor laughed. "Two thousand a year! One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end." 
Austen's novels take place among the landed gentry and the class that historian Alan Everitt has called the "pseudo-gentry": those who were roughly of the same social class as the gentry, such as clergymen, but who did not themselves own estates. These classes typically invested large capital sums in government bonds, the "consols" (for "Consolidated Annuities"), which paid a fixed rate of interest that depended on when they were purchased. The nominal rate of interest on consols was 3%; however, Austen was writing at a time of war, and consols tended to be discounted, sometimes substantially. The cheaper it is to purchase a bond of a particular value, of course, the greater the return. The average return on consols for the first decade of the 1800s was 4.8%. There were also instruments called "Navy 5 percents," which were generally not discounted. 
So as an approximate rule of thumb the interest income derived from invested capital would be around 5% of the total. The Dashwood women's combined capital of £10,000 would thus result in an annual income of about £500. How adequate an income was this for a family of four women of the Dashwood's social class? For a partial answer, we can turn to the odious Fanny Dashwood: "...what on earth can four women want for more than that?—They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be!" 
Out of this income, the women would have to pay rent on the furnished Barton Cottage (offered "on very easy terms," but not rent-free ), purchase food, clothing, and other daily necessities, pay postage, offer presents and alms, and pay the wages of three servants ("two maids and a man" , costing together perhaps £50 per year, plus room and board). As Fanny points out, they would not be able to afford to keep horses or a carriage, making them dependent on others (or on paying their way) for travel of more than two or three miles. While the Dashwood women are hardly impoverished, they are certainly facing severely reduced circumstances and increased social isolation.
What about the incomes of the other characters in Sense and Sensibility, and in particular, the beaux of Elinor and Marianne?
Willoughby: "...though Willoughby was independent, there was no reason to believe him rich. His estate [in Somersetshire] had been rated by Sir John at about six or seven hundred a year; but he lived at an expense to which that income could hardly be equal, and he had himself often complained of his poverty."  In his relative "poverty," of course, Willoughby keeps a carriage and carriage-horses, as well as hunting horses and hounds.Colonel Brandon possesses an estate, Delaford, that helps to generate an income of "two thousand a year without debt or drawback."  Brandon keeps horses and a carriage, and can make occasional visits to London. He also has the power of bestowing the Delaford living—that is, a life position as the rector of Delaford parish, which has an accompanying income of about £200 a year.
It was not uncommon at this time to sell livings when they became vacant. John Dashwood is amazed that Colonel Brandon simply gives the living to Edward Ferrars as a gift. As John says, "...for the next presentation to a living of that value—supposing the late incumbent to have been old and sickly, and likely to vacate it soon—he might have got I dare say—fourteen hundred pounds...I wonder he should be so improvident in a point of such common, such natural, concern!" 
Edward Ferrars "was the eldest son of a man who had died very rich" , and in the ordinary course of events would have inherited the entirety of his father's estate. But we learn that "except a trifling sum [which turns out to be £2000], the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother."  Two thousand pounds would generate an annual income of about £100 a year—four times the annual income of an ordinary laborer, and twice that of a typical clerk, but not much money on which to maintain one's social standing in the gentry or pseudo-gentry.
Even when Edward receives the Delaford living, which will add £200 to his annual income, in Colonel Brandon's view it "can do no more than make Mr. Ferrars comfortable as a bachelor; it cannot enable him to marry."  And although Elinor is quite prepared to marry him anyway, "they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a-year would supply them with the comforts of life" (the additional £50 a year, of course, coming from Elinor's £1000 legacy). 
If an inheritance sets this plot in motion, two disinheritances lead to its resolution. Willoughby is the heir presumptive to the rich Mrs. Smith, an elderly cousin, who owns the Allenham Court estate. But when Mrs. Smith learns that Willoughby has seduced and abandoned Colonel Brandon's niece-in-law and ward Eliza, and is unwilling to marry her, he is "formally dismissed from her favour and her house."  Willoughby, no longer heir to Allenham, later confesses to Elinor that he had decided "to re-establish my circumstances by marrying a woman of fortune."  The woman he chooses, Miss Grey, has a fortune of £50,000, sufficient to add £2500 a year to his income. He breaks with Marianne, making it possible, after the passage of time, for Colonel Brandon to declare his feelings for her.
And when Mrs. Ferrars learns of Edward's secret engagement to the pretty but penniless, "artful, and selfish" Lucy Steele , she disinherits him in favor of his younger brother Robert, who is then "considered as the eldest son."  Robert is the immediate recipient of sufficient money to supply him with an income of £1,000 a year, and also has the expectation of inheriting the entire Ferrars estate on the death of his mother.
Robert's income is more than three times that of Edward; this is sufficient to convince the conniving Lucy (who "has next to nothing herself" ) to shift her allegiance from Edward to Robert. She works to make Robert attached to her, and once she is secure of him, breaks her engagement to Edward. As soon as he learns that he is free, Edward rides to Barton to propose to Elinor.
In the end, Marianne achieves her competence, and Elinor her wealth. With Colonel Brandon's £2000 a year, Marianne achieves what she considers "a very moderate income...A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less."  And when Mrs. Ferrars relents a bit, and provides Edward with £10,000 on his marriage, it boosts his and Elinor's income to £850 a year—a level at which they may be able to afford a carriage, but at the least secure many of the "comforts of life."
And as for Lucy Steele? "The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience." 
Next time: Pride and Prejudice and the marriage market
Last time: Six months with Jane Austen: The plan
- Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Volume I Chapter i; Chapter 1. (References to Austen's novels will be given both by volume and chapter and by sequentially numbered chapters, so that they can be found in many editions; of course, quotations can also be found by a Google search.)
- This and the subsequent discussion of English inheritance law is indebted to Eileen Spring's Law, Land, and Family: Aristocratic Inheritance in England, 1300 to 1800 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993). I alone, however, am responsible for any misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the texts I cite.
- Austen, Sense and Sensibility, I. i.; 1.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. i.; 1.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. ii.; 2.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. xvii.; 17.
- This and the subsequent discussion of the economics of the gentry and pseudo-gentry in Austen's time is indebted to Edward Copeland's Women Writing About Money: Women's Fiction in England, 1790-1820, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Robert D. Hume, "Money in Jane Austen." The Review of English Studies, New Series (2013), Vol. 64, No. 264, pp. 289-310. doi: 10.1093/res/hgs054
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. ii.; 2.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. iv.; 4.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. v.; 5.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. xiv.; 14.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, II. viii.; 30.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, III. v.; 41
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. iii.; 3.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. iii.; 3.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, III. iii.; 39.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, III. xiii.; 49.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, III. viii.; 44.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, III. viii.; 44.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, II. i.; 23.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, III. v.; 41.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, III. i.; 37.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, I. xvii.; 17.
- —, Sense and Sensibility, III. xiv.; 50.