Pride & Prejudice & Entailed land

An entail or “fee tail” operates like a will that sets up a primogeniture system for real estate. Entail restricts the sale or inheritance of an estate and prevents the property from being sold, or left by will, to anyone other than a pre-determined heir. The primogeniture system, meant the eldest son inherits the title, even if he had an older sister. Daughters couldn’t inherit their father’s title even if they had no brothers, and daughters’ sons and grandsons couldn’t inherit. The title had to pass to and through legitimate sons.  Although a work of fiction Pride and Prejudice illustrates the problems that can arise through the entailing of property if there is no male heir.

Entailing property was an attempt to maintain the high social status of a family. A lord or other landholder left his house and land to his son “and the male heirs of his body”, ensuring that a single male descendant received the family’s real estate. Where the family has a noble title, the entail follows the title, so the same man gets the real estate and the title.

In Pride and Prejudice Mr. Bennet, the father of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, had only a life interest in Longbourn, the family’s home and principal source of income. As the property was entailed Mr Bennet had no power to sell it or gift it through his will as it was to be inherited by the next male heir.

If Mr. & Mrs Bennet had a son Longbourn would have passed to him, but it could not pass to any of his five daughters. Instead, Mr Bennet’s cousin Mr Collins as the next nearest male heir would inherit the property. Upon Mr Bennet’s death Mrs Bennet would get a life interest in the estate but the five Bennet daughters, would lose their home and income. In the novel Mrs Bennet is motivated by the desire to arrange a good marriage for each of her daughters to ensure their financial security.

Jane Austen’s brother Edward, had inherited entailed estates from Thomas and Catherine Knight, distant cousins of their father under the will of Elizabeth Knight, who died in 1737. When Thomas Knight died in 1794 he left the estate to his wife for her life, who subsequently moved away before her death and gave up the estates to Edward. Catherine Knight’s will stipulated that Edward change his legal name to Knight which he did in 1812.

In the UK fee tail was abolished in 1925, however some land could still be entailed if they were created under a Will made prior to this date, however as of 1996 no new fee tails can be created.

9 Replies to “Pride & Prejudice & Entailed land”

  1. Without knowing how the original deed or grant was worded, Longbourn might be held in trust until one of them has a (legitimate) son, however we know that as Mr Collins the next male-line relative, he is the presumptive heir.

  2. If Mrs Bennet gets a life interest in the estate after Mr Bennett’s death, then why would his daughters “lose their home and income” as long as Mrs Bennet remained alive? And if she has a life interest in the estate, then why is she so worried about being thrown out of Longbourne when her husband dies and why do the Lucases start to speculate about how much longer Mr Bennet will live when Charlotte gets engaged to Mr Collins? Where in the novel does Austen indicate that Mrs Bennet has a life interest? This assumption seems incorrect.

    1. Widows were entitled to a dower share – one third of the value of her husband’s estate – after his death. Under dower rights Mrs Bennet would benefit from a third of the income produced by a farm or from rental property on his estate. Additionally her father left her a settlement and dowry of £4,000.00

  3. In the normal course all the heirs male of the body of someone with the surname Bennet will have the surname Bennet. Unless we postulate a change of name at some time it is impossible for Mr Collins to inherit as heir to Mr Bennet. He may , however, have an entitlement under a remainder or a reversion. See any Dictionary of Law.

    1. Entail or fee tail under English common law is a form of trust preventing the real property in the estate from being sold, devised by will or otherwise alienated by the tenant in possession.

      In Pride and Prejudice Longbourn is said to be “entailed, in default of heirs male, on a distant relation”

      This is commonly referred to as ‘entailment to heirs male’.

      The heir to Longbourn is determined by the trust deed. As Mr and Mrs Bennett have no sons, the estate passes to Mr Collins as the next male-line relative.

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