Monday, February 4, 2013
Volokh celebrates the 200th anniversary of Pride & Prejudice with a look at the role of property law in the novel:
Generations of English lit professors have spilled barrels of ink over this book; but, as far as I know, most of them haven’t placed much emphasis on the fact that the plot hinges on a point of property law.
The reason why it is so important for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five daughters to find wealthy husbands is that they cannot inherit their father’s estate, since it is subject to the fee tail – a now archaic form of property estate that was required to pass through the male line. As a result, upon Mr. Bennet’s death, his land (which forms the overwhelming majority of his wealth) will go to his nearest male relation, the despicable Mr. Collins. In the early nineteenth century, few women could acquire significant wealth other than by inheriting it or marrying into it; thus the Bennets’ predicament. As Austen explains in Chapter 7:
Mr. Bennet’s property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs male, on a distant relation; and their mother’s fortune, though ample for her situation in life, could but ill supply the deficiency of his.
And, as Tanya has pointed out, the fee tail plays a major role in the plot of recent PBS sensations, Downton Abbey.