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.

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.