So today we will be talking about Mr. Collins.
We all know Mr. Collins. His creepy wave. His penchant for excellent boiled potatoes.
The way he’s set to kick Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters out of their house to live in the hedge grove as soon as their dad dies.
But wait… why can this ridiculous clergymen kick the Bennet sisters out of their house? No one even likes him. Who would leave a house to this guy?
Those are great questions, and we’re going to answer them here for you today on Dashie Notes.
Why will Mr. Collins inherit Longbourn?
So why will Mr. Collins take over Longbourn when Mr. Bennet dies? In short, inheritance laws.
Inheritance laws can be complex, so today we’ll just break down two basic terms to know when it comes Jane Austen and inheritance. They are:
1. Primogeniture aka Why Being The First Born Son Is Awesome
In more every day terms, primogeniture means the first-born son’s right to inherit the vast majority of the family’s wealth, land and titles. This idea of first-born-son take all inheritance has been around in England for thousands of years. Which is great if you’re a first-born son. It’s less great if you’re any of the other children in the family.
But, have you ever wondered who first thought up this idea? Was it some firstborn son who really didn’t like his other siblings?
Well, maybe. But primogeniture was popular because it preserved a family’s legacy. Families in Regency England were long-term thinkers. They wanted to insure their family’s high social status, not just for today, but also for generations to come.
How do you preserve your family’s legacy for generations? Well, you’d start by fighting off something called subdivision, or the division of your wealth into smaller and smaller amounts over time.
For example, if a rich man with five kids divides his wealth equally among them, then he’d have five somewhat rich kids. When those kids have kids, he now has a lot of not-very-rich grand kids. Within just a few generations the family’s name, wealth and social standing has decreased dramatically.
However, if a rich man has five kids and gives his riches to his first-born son, then his son in rich and the family name continues on in style.
What about the other children of the family?
If you’re a daughter, you hope to marry someone rich and of at least of equal social standing to your family. This would preserve your place in the social order through marriage.
Younger sons on the other hand often joined certain occupations. For example, Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey and Edmund Bertram of Mansfield park both become clergymen. Meanwhile, John Knightly in Emma becomes a lawyer.
Younger sons also do their best to marry rich heiresses and get money that way. Of course, a younger son’s ultimate windfall would occur if his older brother died and he was next in line to inherit.
So what is primogeniture? It is the concept that those of Regency England use to preserve their family’s name and social standing.
2. Legal Entailments
Primogeniture, however was just an idea that most families used at the time. If they wanted too, they could go against tradition and give their land to whoever they wanted too.
Which some saw as a problem. After all, if you’re a gentlemen who has fought long and hard to guarantee your family’s place in society though land and wealth, do you really want to think about some possible future great-grandson who decides to throw caution to the wind, give his ten children an equal inheritance and lose everything you worked for in one generation? No, you don’t.
So that is why some families decided to make the principles of primogeniture legally binding on their future generations by placing something called an entail on their estate. This would forbid future inheritors from breaking up the family wealth or leaving it to someone other than the male line.
To simplify all this, let’s take the Bennet Family in Pride and Prejudice.
Mr Bennet’s estate is called Longborn. Generations ago, some old, possibly crabby, great-great-great grandfather of Mr Bennet worried that some future youngin’ would break up the estate and ruin everything. So Crabby Grandpa Bennet put in his will that his descendants could not sell, or in any other way break up Longbourn and that only male members of the family could inherit the estate—no daughters.
Well, that’s great Crabby Grandpa Bennet—it works just fine until we get down Elizabeth Bennet’s time. Because Elizabeth Bennet has no brothers. There is no oldest son, or any son to inherit Longbourn. Which means that according to Crabby Grandpa Bennet’s will the next nearest male relative will inherit the estate—who just happens to be Mr. Collins.
Mr. Collins has the right to inherit the entirety of Longbourn too—which means the Mr. Bennet cannot even take anything from it to give to his daughters—which will leave them nothing from him at his death.
We see the same exact principle at play in Sense and Sensibility. Here the Uncle’s will makes it binding on the Dashwood family that the oldest son will inherit Norland Park and that Elinor, Marianne and Margaret’s father cannot leave anything to his daughters.
It’s also at play in Austen’s Persuasion, where the slimy cousin Mr. Elliot is set to inherit Sir Elliot’s estate and title.
Yet, not all estates in Austen’s novels have legal entailments on them.
There are plenty of examples of families free to leave their estates to who they wish, including daughters.
For example, Infamous Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s estate will go to her daughter Anne in Pride and Prejudice.
Mr. Woodhouse in Emma is leaving his estate equally divided to his two daughters.
Also in Emma, the Churchills adopted Frank Weston to inherit their estate instead of leaving it to the next person in their bloodline.
So, why is Mr. Collins going to inherit Longbourn? Because a legal entail based on the principles of primogeniture says he will.
So as soon as Mr. Bennet dies he can move right in, kick his cousins out and enjoy all the excellent boiled potatoes he wants.
Would you like to know more about the basics of money in Austen movies? Check out my post on Regency Economics 101!