In an earlier post, I discussed the theory that Sense & Sensibility was written as a protest against primogeniture – the practice of giving the entire estate to the oldest son, while the other sons and daughters received much less, if anything. The novel begins with the death of old Uncle Dashwood, followed a paragraph later by the death of his son and heir, and soon the Dashwood sisters and their widowed mother are out the door with nothing much besides the best breakfast china set.
I’ve already discussed (and rejected) the suggestion that Austen invented this plot point specifically as a protest against primogeniture. But really, we ought to look around us and ask – was Austen unique in featuring death and inheritance in her plots? Do her novels stand out from her contemporaries in this respect? Was this an improbable or controversial "combination of circumstances"?
Well, one thing I can tell you after a swift survey of authors whom Austen is known to have read, the answer is – 18th novels depended heavily on death and coincidence for their plots. The deaths of parents and guardians in the first chapter (usually as backstory) gives us the isolated, forsaken, disinherited heroine who must battle through tribulations and misunderstanding. And coincidence gives us situations where characters meet or reunite under remarkably improbable circumstances. More on coincidence later, let’s do death first, because it is amazing how many novels start with death and rely upon death.
Every day was COVID 19 day and worse, in Regency England. No cures for appendicitis, diabetes, most cancers, or tuberculosis. (Tuberculosis – aka consumption, aka wasting Victorian heroine disease, killed millions). There was nothing unusual about starting a novel with – “the first wife died, and the old uncle was childless, and the heir died a year after inheriting, and so the Dashwood girls were left almost portionless.” Marianne, Elinor and Margaret were lucky to have escaped with their mother alive and well.
In Sarah Burney’s Clarentine, the ranks are thinned without mercy: In the first few chapters, we lose Clarentine’s mother, her aunt, her father, her uncle, her French uncle and the Earl of Welwyn’s heir. In Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle, a younger brother inherits an estate when Emmeline's father dies, and the surviving brother's wife is the heir to her family's estate when her two brothers die. Oh, and Emmeline's mom died too.
Is all this slaughter a way of protesting primogeniture? Or is the author setting up her chess pieces on the board, and knocking half of them off, so she is left with the pieces she wants to put in play? Maria Williams in The Advantages of Education is left behind with a guardian when her parents go to the West Indies. The guardian dies, without leaving her the promised inheritance, and mother returns but the father is dead, which are all a necessary preliminaries to making the mother the head of the household, the driver of the action, but too poor to mingle in high society. Likewise, the Dashwood girls' predicament wouldn't be so poignant if they had the independence which comes from having a hefty inheritance. You'd have quite a different novel indeed.
Heroes could lose their parents too; it was a dereliction of family duty to leave your widowed mother home alone without a companion, Charles, the bachelor in Coelebs in Search of a Wife, can’t go in search of a wife until mom dies -- so she promptly does.
I haven't seen any authors – including Austen – who editorialize against the inheritance laws (but I'll update this if I find any examples. And I'm talking about the laws, not characters who complain that they wish so-and-so would die and give them an inheritance.) Authors, including Austen, do give us selfish, neglectful, or spendthrift ancestors, but there is no editorial voice tugging at the reader’s sleeve to say, “This wouldn’t have happened in France, where they abolished primogeniture.” Death and disinheritance appears -- to me anyway -- to be a plot device, not a social commentary.
Given the dramatic possibilities of the friendless heroine, perhaps the real wonder is that so many of Austen’s parents managed to evade the grim reaper: Emma Watson is the only heroine who loses both parents, (that is, Austen family lore tells us that Mr. Watson was to die, but Austen never finished The Watsons). Instead, Austen separates her heroines from their parents by sending them on journeys – the Dashwood girls go to London, Elizabeth Bennet to Kent and Derbyshire, Catherine Morland to Bath. (Emma, of course, never goes anywhere.) Fanny Price leaves Portsmouth and later, she learns you can't go home again.
As well, Austen's heroines are not as friendless and helpless as Emmeline and Evelina, although Catherine Morland is innocent as a lamb and Fanny Price is isolated without being an orphan. I've written elsewhere about how Austen's heroines are psychologically isolated.
Another difference is that many heroes and heroines of 18th and 19th century literature get an unexpected windfall inheritance, such as Grace Nugent in Maria Edgeworth's The Absentee. Jane Eyre gets her windfall from her mother's brother. In Anthony Trollope’s Dr. Thorne, Mary Thorne is barely acceptable in society because of her dubious parentage. But she becomes a very eligible bride when she inherits her uncle's riches. Austen doesn't use this trope. While some of Austen's heroines marry very well, they don't get a surprise bequest from a distant relative.
Mrs. Churchill's death in Emma is quite fortuitous for Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax; we'll revisit her sudden demise when we look at coincidence. And down the road, we'll have to look at misunderstandings -- those pesky misunderstandings which keep the hero and heroine apart.
Click here for a useful run-down of myths about English inheritance laws. Yes, women could inherit.
Author Rose Servitova spares Mr. Watson's life in her elegantly-crafted completion of The Watsons.
Here is John Mullan on literary orphans.
When I brought Mansfield Park's Mary Crawford to Italy to meet the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she was delighted to learn he was the heir to a baronetcy. Click here for more about my novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady, which is based on a true literary mystery. Some Austen characters from Mansfield Park meet an untimely end in my Mansfield Trilogy.