In Jane Austen: the Secret Radical, Dr. Helena Kelly argues that Sense & Sensibility is a covert attack on primogeniture. Dr. Kelly writes: “[Austen] wasn’t alone in questioning the fundamental fairness of primogeniture. The feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft did it too, in her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” The phrasing of this sentence might mislead Kelly’s readers into thinking that the only two people in Georgian England who wrote about primogeniture were Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen. That’s obviously not the case.
Many people wrote about primogeniture and inheritance was an anxious topic of discussion among families, especially daughters and younger sons.
Historian Rory Muir has written that there was more open resentment of primogeniture in Tudor and Stuart times, than in Regency times. He suggests it is because there were more opportunities for second sons in Austen's time. Because of war, exploration and colonization, the younger son could join the army or navy or the East India company. Of course this ended up being fatal to many of them.
Fundamentally though, Austen didn’t need anyone to explain the downside of primogeniture to her. It affected her family as well. She was upset when her father turned the Rectory in Steventon over to James, the oldest son. Of course, a post as a clergyman cannot be divided among all your children; but Mr. Austen also sold off many of the family possessions, including Jane's pianoforte. Family lore states that Jane fainted when she learned she had to leave her home and turn it over to her brother and sister-in-law. Later, she complained, “The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another.”
Now that the political and personal context surrounding primogeniture is understood, let’s look at what Austen says and doesn’t say about primogeniture in her novels. Did she, in fact, question the fundamental fairness of primogeniture?
The Dashwood sisters in Sense & Sensibility, the children of a second marriage, are left with a small inheritance when their father dies a year after inheriting the estate (known as Norland) from his uncle. Norland goes to the son of his first marriage, John Dashwood.
John Dashwood’s wife Fanny talks him into ignoring his father’s dying injunction to be generous to his step-mother and his half-sisters, and the disinherited widow and daughters are forced to leave Norland (but not before Elinor falls in love with Fanny’s brother Edward).
Can we truly say Austen is arguing against primogeniture? She describes the situation, but her moralizing is not directed at the law, it is directed at the decisions of the Dashwood family.
First, she faults the old uncle for tying up the estate to pass it down entirely to John Dashwood and to John Dashwood's little boy, "who, in occasional visits with his father and mother at Norland, had so far gained on the affections of his uncle... as to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters."
Then she faults John and Fanny Dashwood for being insensitive and selfish. Mrs. Dashwood does not "dispute" the right of her daughter-in-law Fanny to move in immediately after her husband's funeral: "the house was her husband's from the moment of his father's decease; but the indelicacy of [Fanny's] conduct... was to her a source of immovable disgust."
Then Fanny talks John out of giving his half-sisters a generous settlement. Austen shows us a man who fails to do his moral duty, and she gives us examples of his weak and avaricious nature throughout the book. Nor does she exempt Elinor and Marianne's father, or their mother, “a woman who never saved in her life,” from criticism for failure to prepare for the inevitable. The primogeniture is inevitable, the selfishness and mismanagement are not.
Primogeniture and entail, as scholar Zouheir Jamoussi notes, come up in every one of Austen’s novels—and many, many other novels and plays as well. It's not as if Austen’s readers would have been forcibly struck by her description of a situation they’d never encountered before.
The issue is made more explicit in Pride & Prejudice than in Sense & Sensibility. It is Mrs. Bennet who argues most often, and most loudly, against the fact that her daughters are left out of the inheritance.
As this next passage from Sense & Sensibility indicates, Austen seems to regard a more equitable world as pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.
"I wish," said Margaret, striking out a novel thought, “that somebody would give us all a large fortune apiece!”
“Oh that they would!” cried Marianne, her eyes sparkling with animation, and her cheeks glowing with the delight of such imaginary happiness.
“We are all unanimous in that wish, I suppose,” said Elinor, “in spite of the insufficiency of wealth.”
There is a subtle but definite sarcasm in her editorial insertions: it is "a novel thought" to hope someone will give you a large sum of money. Young Margaret doesn't realize how many before her have had the same idea. But the prospect of receiving a large fortune is "imaginary" for most.
Oddly enough, the impossible did happen to Austen's brother Edward. He was adopted as the heir of some very wealthy relatives. Near the end of Austen's life, another rich uncle died, leaving his fortune to his wife, instead of spreading the wealth around in the family. Austen admitted that she was disappointed. That's still a far cry from advocating that the laws of inheritance be reformed.
Austen portrayed dysfunctional marriages--is she arguing that the institution of marriage should be abolished? Austen wrote about negligent parents—is she against the nuclear family? As reviewer Alexandra Mullen perceptively writes: “the aim of Austen’s satire is not to raze the world to ground zero but to amend, as much as humanly possible, the world we have inherited.” And for Austen, this relates more to private conduct than public institutions.