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.