Inheritance Law and Emma

Inheritance law has a much smaller role in Jane Austen’s Emma than in her earlier works.  Emma Woodhouse and her sister Isabella are the only children of Mr. Woodhouse, whose estate, Hartfield, is not entailed or otherwise legally encumbered.  Upon Mr. Woodhouse’s death there will be plenty of money to keep the two sisters from want.  No, the laws of inheritance come into the story only through the sub-plot involving Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

Frank Churchill is Mr. Weston’s son, but after his mother died Mr. Weston gave him up to his wife’s family as they had no children of their own and it would have been difficult for a single man to raise an infant.  The Churchills therefore raised Frank as their heir, and he would eventually inherit the great estate of Enscombe.  Unfortunately for Frank, his adopted father and mother considered Mr. Weston to be a step too low for him to associate with and she ruled the men of her family with an iron will and frequent seizures of ill health.  Frank’s mother had been a Churchill and married beneath her and there had been a breach in the family because of this, which was only healed when his mother died of a lingering disease three years after her marriage.  His adoptive parents made it very clear that he must not marry against their wishes or he would be disinherited, something easily done since he was not legally their son; it was only a matter of changing a will.  This situation causes Frank to hide his engagement with Jane Fairfax, a beautiful an talented, but poor woman, and the constant dancing to his adoptive mother’s tune makes him a bit spoiled and not careful of other peoples’ feelings.

You might wonder why more people did not adopt sons if their estates were entailed and, as with the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, the wife and the unmarried daughters would lose their home and income when the head of the family died.  The reason is that there was a very strong feeling at the time that purity of blood was important, and it was thus very rare to adopt children in the manner that we know it.  The adoption of a lower class child would be expected to yield a son who is clumsy, crude and lacking in elegance, no matter how young he was when adopted.  This adopted son would then pass on his lower class traits to his children and the family’s blood would no longer be ‘pure.’

Adoption of a nephew or other close relative could be considered if his parents were both of good blood, but it would not be possible for an estate owner to run off to an orphanage to adopt a random son.  These adoptions were informal, not legal, situations and the benefits of inheritance would only accrue to the adoptive son if his ‘father’s’ estate was not entailed.  The courts would not look with a friendly eye on an attempt to adopt a male heir, which was clearly performed to cheat the presumptive heir out of his due.  Only a son ‘of his body’ could overcome the rights of the heir presumptive.

Because of Frank Churchill’s close relationship with his uncle and the fact that his real father, Mr. Weston, was at least marginally a gentleman, Frank might be considered of good enough blood to become his uncle’s heir.  He was not adopted in the sense that we know it, but changed his name to Churchill when he turned twenty-one as an overt acknowledgement that he was his uncle’s heir.  So, he was raised from a young age as the heir of Enscombe and changed his name to Churchill, but he was not legally ‘adopted’ as we know it.

Changing your name because of the requirements of someone’s legacy was not uncommon.  For example,  Lord Byron, whose full name was George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, received a legacy which required him to change his last name to Noel, the surname of the grantor of the legacy.  He did this and was then legally called George Gordon Byron Noel, but his title was still Lord Byron and that is what he would have been called, so most people were likely unaware that his name had been changed.  Actually, this might have been a good dodge if you were trying to get away from creditors, as Byron always was, but his acute awareness of the importance of that  title would make it very difficult for him to give it up and become a nobody!

Concussion: Then and Now

Someone recently asked me about the treatment of concussion for a Pride and Prejudice-related fan fiction story.  I misinterpreted her question and gave her a long exposition on Regency medical practice for head injuries.  Then I found out that the story takes place in modern times.  It occurred to me that a comparison of medical treatment for concussion in the two eras would provide a good comparison of the differences in all medical practice for those two historic periods.

Concussion 2011:  Scenario 1.   The patient is a young man in his early 20s who falls from a horse and is unconscious for four hours.  He, fortunately, is wearing a helmet, but the Emergency Medical Technicians who accompany the ambulance are concerned about a cervical spine injury (the section of the spine in the neck), so they immobilize his head and neck, carefully slide a backboard under him and onto the gurney, then lift the gurney into the ambulance.  Because he seems to be breathing well and there are no obvious broken bones or internal injuries, they drive him to the hospital swiftly but cautiously, trying not to do anything that will jostle his head and neck.

When they arrive at the Emergency Room he is immediately evaluated by the ER doctor, as well as a neurosurgeon and a neurologist and has an emergency CT scan of his head and neck.  He has not yet regained consciousness, but his pupils are both the same size and respond to light, his reflexes are normal. His CT scan does not show any injury to his cervical spine or evidence of bleeding in or around the brain.  He is admitted to the Critical Care Unit where his respiration and ECG are monitored and the nurses frequently check his pupils with a penlight to make sure they are the same size and react to light, and look in his eyes at the optic nerve to see if there is any increased pressure in the brain.

After a few hours he awakens with a severe headache, dizziness and nausea, but his mental status seems to be normal.  They do not give him any pain medications except Tylenol, because aspirin and ibuprofen-like drugs can increase the risk of bleeding and narcotic pain relievers will put him to sleep and they will not be able to evaluate his mental status.  Overnight they awaken him every hour to do a mental status exam and recheck his pupils.   By the next day, he is feeling a little better and his headache is not quite as bad, but because of the length of time he was unconscious they keep him in the hospital for a few days for observation.  At this point his risk of a bleed in the brain is rapidly decreasing and they allow him to have some hydrocodone (an opium derivative) for his headache.  After that time he is allowed to go home with instructions to be careful, stay at bedrest as much as he can over the next 2 weeks and avoid activities which might make him dizzy or be dangerous if his coordination is not yet back to normal.  He is given an appointment with the neurologist for 1 week later for followup.

Concussion in 1811: Scenario 2:  A young man in his twenties is thrown from a horse during a fox hunt and is unconscious.  The other riders and servants who see the mishap run to a nearby farm and take a door off its hinges and bring it back to carry him back to the farmhouse.  The bystanders have straightened him out to make sure he can breathe well and one is tending to his horse, which has a badly strained hock.  The unconscious young man is lifted onto the makeshift stretcher and carried at a jog to the farmhouse and moved carefully onto a bed.  A servant is sent for the physician and the farmer’s wife nervously watches the young man and keeps cool compresses on his head until the doctor arrives several hours later.

When he arrives, the physician finds that the patient has awakened for brief periods, but is now unconscious again.  He takes his pulse and finds that it is strong and regular, then he presses on his fingernails and sees that the blood perfusion seems good.  Next he waves a candle back and forth in front of his patient’s pupils and sees that they are round and the same size, and reactive to light; he checks his reflexes, which are normal.  He tests the man’s sensation with a pinprick and he reflexively draws back in spite of being unconscious.

He comes down and talks to the men who brought him in and to the farmer’s wife: he says that he is still unconscious, but seems to be only lightly so.  There is no evidence that he broke his neck but they must just wait until he awakens to be sure.  The wife, who will be nursing him is given instructions to give him some laudanum (tincture of opium) in wine if he wakes up with a headache or is restless, and he is to be watched all night carefully.  He warns the man’s friends that it is a matter of time whether  they will know if he has seriously injured his brain, but they must keep him quiet because there is a risk of bleeding in the brain from such an injury.  If he awakens at all and is thirsty they may try to give him lemonade or gruel. He will probably be in bed at the farmer’s house for a couple of weeks before he can go home.

After four hours the man awakens with a severe headache and double vision and he stays in the farmhouse and is nursed by the farmwife until he is able to get up and around and to tolerate the jostling of a carriage to take him home.  The doctor comes to see him daily and is happy to see that his patient seems to be progressing well; the headache and diplopia have resolved and his coordination seems to be improving.  He will be followed by his own physician once he is home.

Inheritance and Persuasion

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot is in dire financial straits because of his poor money management and refusal to stay within his means.  Sir Walter’s late wife was of a more practical bent than he, and she kept them within their means, but since her death years ago he has spent freely to keep up the elegance he feels he owes to his venerable name and estate.  This in itself is ironic since as a baronet he is only a member of the gentry, albeit at the top of the heap, yet he has an ego more suitable to a Duke.

Two of Sir Walter’s daughters back him in these views, although, to be fair, they are probably not aware of the depth of his indebtedness.  Sir Walter is very well known as someone who plays the ostrich when something unpleasant arises (usually sticking his head in the Baronetage instead of in the sand).  Most of his estate, Kellynch, is entailed, but he could sell off a small section which was not entailed; he refuses to do so.  His pride causes him to insist on passing it intact to his heir (his cousin William Elliot) in the same state as he inherited it. This pride is certainly to William’s benefit, but is not so beneficial for his daughters.

As inis the case of Mr. Collins in P&P, William Elliot is the heir presumptive and, although he scorned his future baronetcy in his youth for the lure of a wealthy marriage, he now wants the social status that the title will give him. If Sir Walter should be taken in and marries Mrs. Clay, or any other woman young enough to bear children, it is possible that he would have a son, who will take William Elliot’s place as heir.  This possibility drives the major sub-plot, that of William Elliot’s efforts to prevent Sir Walter from marrying Mrs. Clay.  When he falls for Anne he believes that marrying her might also divert Sir Walter’s attention from Mrs. Clay; he and Anne could marry and live at Kellynch and Sir Walter’s debts would be paid by William, most likely with the provision that he will not remarry.

Unfortunately for William, Anne does not care enough for the empty social status which her father thinks is so important to marry a man she has reservations about, although becoming the mistress of Kellynch does tempt her.  Little, quiet Anne has a will of iron when she has a second chance with Captain Wentworth and William cannot hope to overcome the power of her first love.  The inheritance of Kellynch and the baronetcy is the shining jewel that controls the action of all of the main characters, except Anne.  She sees clearly that a bankrupt estate is nothing to feel pride about, but she also does not want her father to marry Mrs. Clay because it will degrade him to be married to a solicitor’s daughter.

The free and easy relationships among the navy clearly contrast with the empty formality and pride of the Elliot family. Time has brought Anne down, with the salvation of the Elliot estate depending upon Admiral Croft’s wealth (gained in the war), while bringing Wentworth up by giving him a fortune (also gained in the war), and they can now meet as equals who know what they want.

Review: Absolute Liability by J.W. Becton

I often buy books thinking they will be really good, but somehow I don’t get around to reading them soon and they add to my pile of To Be Read books. Absolute Liability sounded interesting and I was intrigued by the contrast between Becton’s previous book, Charlotte Collins, a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and began it quickly and was immediately drawn into the story.

The story is fast paced and the reader is plunged into the lead character’s life quickly, but naturally. Julia Jackson is someone from a dysfunctional family caused by her sister’s rape in high school, and Julia is determined to find her sister’s attacker, a determination which leads her to the police academy and into a brief job as a policewoman.  A lay-off changed  her course, and she now works as a fraud investigator for an insurance company, a job which still uses some of her police skills, but does not risk her life or require her to carry a gun…or so  she thought.

Becton’s characters are finely drawn and reasonable (there is nothing that irritates me more than a woman who decides to go investigate a biker bar…alone…when a person of reasonable intellect would take someone with them, or, better yet, call the police with her idea or clue.  I detest having to tell stupid characters to “Don’t go in the abandoned house! DON’T GO INTO THE ABANDONED HOUSE!!!!”)  Becton manages a brisk and believable read that is well paced and if her characters are not totally fleshed out it is because this is the first book of a six book series and I am sure we will get to know the characters at a leisurely pace as the series progresses.  The mystery in the story was well crafted and had enough twists and turns to hold my attention for a one sitting reading.

Read this book on the front porch with a tall glass of sweet iced tea and enjoy, then try to curb your impatience for the next one!  Oh…I do not recommend starting this at bedtime- I sat up until 1 am to finish it!

Rating:  ***** (five stars)

It also gets a PG rating for some non-graphic violence, very mild swearing.  I would have no hesitation recommending this to a young adult reader.

Inheritance and the plot of Mansfield Park

The text of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park does not say that the estate is entailed, but it probably is. It is certainly clear that Tom, the eldest son, will inherit the baronetcy from his father, and generally the land goes with the title. Most of the discussion of Tom’s inheritance occurs because his wild, careless behavior distresses his father, Sir Thomas Bertram, and he rather wishes that he could cut him out of the inheritance and give it into his son Edmund’s keeping since he can’t seem to control Tom. Sir Thomas is very upset because Tom is cheating his brother of his portion because he keeps incurring debts which Sir Thomas feels obligated to pay, and which he cannot afford.

Part of the tension of the story occurs because it is clear to everyone (and especially Mary Crawford) that Edmund would be a much better heir, but Mansfield Park concentrates much more on the importance of the relationships between the characters and how failures of upbringing by the responsible adults spoil the characters of the young people and cause a great deal of heartache and embarrassment to the family. These failures include the Price family, with their weak and whining mother, and the Bertrams with Sir Thomas’s stern but superficial attention to the behavior of his children, which is undone by the indiscriminate doting of their aunt, Mrs. Norris. The Crawfords, in spite of their personal charms, have serious moral weaknesses as a result of being brought up by their uncle, an irreligious woman hater. Fanny Price, the most quiet and insignificant heroine of Austen’s works, has not been spoiled by doting or the mind-twisting of a misogynist, and turns out to be a woman of great moral character and strength and provides a stark contrast with the selfishness of the Bertrams and the Crawfords.

Although Fanny has moral values that are very similar to Sir Thomas, she sees through the social façades of her cousins and the Crawfords as he does not and must suffer a great deal in her refusal of Henry Crawford. Even her cousin Edmund, whom she loves and who has ever been her best friend, thinks that Crawford would be an ideal husband for Fanny, he himself being blind to the deep flaws of both the Crawfords. When the eldest son, Tom, becomes seriously ill and is abandoned by his friends the Bertrams and Crawfords respond in ways that reveal their true characters. During his long recovery Tom turns around and becomes better suited to inherit the title and Sir Thomas, by the actions of his children, realizes the flaws in their characters. Thus, the plot revolves around the characters and their flaws rather than having problems forced upon them by the vagaries of inheritance.

Inheritance and Pride and Prejudice

The financial problems of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice are the result of a straightforward entail, which dictates that Longbourn estate will go to Mr. Collins when Mr. Bennet dies, leaving Mrs. Bennet and any unmarried daughters to “starve in the hedgerows.” When this occurs, the women remaining at home will be allowed to take their personal possessions only (clothing, toiletries and personal jewelry), leaving all the furniture in the house for the new owner. It is possible that even some of Mrs. Bennet’s jewelry, if there are family heirlooms which are included in the entail, could belong to Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet’s death would not leave his family in debt, fortunately, since his ‘love of independence’ made him scrupulously avoid spending money they did not have to worry about also being saddled with debt they would not be able to pay. The Bennet family income is already so low that they are just hanging on the edge of gentility and they have only £1,000 which will go to each daughter when Mrs. Bennet dies; certainly not enough to attract a decent husband for each of them. The two eldest daughters have enough beauty and, in Elizabeth’s case, wit to make it likely that they will be able to find a husband of some kind, but their prospects will be severely limited, and made even worse by the vulgar behavior of their two youngest sisters and their mother.

Inheritance law and Sense and Sensibility

Austen’s first published book, Sense and Sensibility, depended upon a complicated will by the unnamed uncle of Henry Dashwood (father of John by his first marriage and Elinor, Marianne and Margaret by his second) for the creation of the dramatic tension. This uncle lived to a very old age and had had the companionship and care of his sister until her death. When she died, Mr. Dashwood’s nephew, whom he intended to inherit Norland, gave up his own estate and moved his family in with his uncle and cared for him the last ten years of his life. Unfortunately, instead of leaving the estate directly to Henry Dashwood, the uncle willed his estate away from Mr. Henry Dashwood, creating the preliminaries for the events which left Mrs. Dashwood and her daughter in dire financial straits. Mr. Henry Dashwood is given the use and income of Norland for his lifetime, but his uncle specified in his will that it would then go to Henry’s son John and his young son, Harry, free and clear. There were no restrictions on how John Dashwood’s son used the property when he inherited and there is not a legal entail mentioned in Sense and Sensibility, so Harry could do what he wished with the property.

Because of this will Mr. Henry Dashwood and his second family were very comfortable only as long as Henry was alive, and he hoped to save a significant amount of cash out of the income of the property to allow his second family to live comfortably when he died. His son John already had inherited a comfortable fortune from his mother’s marriage settlement, receiving half of it when he came of age, and had married in his wife Fanny a woman who increased his fortune significantly with her dowry. Unfortunately, Henry Dashwood lived only a year after his uncle and was able to leave only £10,000 to support them, including the £1,000 Henry’s uncle left for each of the girls when he died. The income from this legacy would have to support the four women, which Fanny Dashwood optimistically predicts will bring in £500 per annum to feed them, clothe them, and provide shelter for them. While this would be enough to keep them from penury, it is certainly not enough to allow them to have any of the elegancies which they enjoyed in their previous life. Also, when each of the girls marries they will take their £1,000 legacy for their dowry, decreasing the income of the remaining family by about £50 per year. A £1,000 dowry is so small as to require that they marry a man who is independently wealthy and free to marry for love, or, as happens with Elinor, to give up any thought of distinction or elegance and eke out a living with her garden and cows when she is married to Edward (and he is only able to marry her because he is kindly given a living by Colonel Brandon).

Myth busting: inheritance law in the Regency Era

For most fans of historical fiction and period films, English inheritance law is one of the most confusing parts of understanding English society. Unfortunately, it is also a major part of many novels from that period, as the inheritance of property could make the difference between living well and abject poverty. I am going to talk about some of the myths which I hear frequently and then talk about what the law really was during the Regency Era.

Myth #1: Women could not own property. Continue reading