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!

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.