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).

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