How exactly did entails work? Why were they so popular? What rites did Mr. Collins perform as a clergyman? Find out the answers to these questions and more, in this episode of My Cousin Jane.
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Note: Transcripts on this site are the scripts I used when preparing to record the show. They may or may not be a 100% faithful representation of the final recording. Audio clips of Pride & Prejudice come from Karen Savage’s narration of Pride & Prejudice, courtesy of LibriVox.org.
Welcome to My Cousin Jane, a podcast about Jane Austen and her works. With your host, Lee Falin.
Welcome back to another episode of My Cousin Jane. Each week, we look at what you might think of as the behind the scenes featurettes or deleted scenes of a particular chapter in Austen’s books.
This week, we’re going to talk about Pride & Prejudice Chapter 13.
Chapter 13 introduces us to Mr. Collins. He’s the cousin of the Longbourn sisters, and is next inline to inherit the estate once Mr. Bennet dies. This fact doesn’t win him any points in Mrs. Bennet’s eyes.
Entails and Inheritance
Before Mr. Collins arrives, he writes a letter informing the family that he has invited himself over for a visit. Let’s listen to a brief clip from that letter, and as always our audio clips come courtesy of Karen Savage and Librivox.org:
“About a month ago I received this letter, and about a fortnight ago I answered it; for I thought it a case of some delicacy, and requiring early attention. It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.”
“Oh, my dear,” cried his wife, “I cannot bear to hear that mentioned. Pray do not talk of that odious man. I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure, if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”
Jane and Elizabeth attempted to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted it before: but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason; and she continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about.Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 13
Well, in case Mrs. Bennet is listening, we’re going to take a few minutes to explain the nature of an entail, and a bit about regency estate law.
But first, I just have to point out this little quip by Mr. Bennet. Pretty much everything Mr. Bennet says in the novel is a mixture of dry humor and sarcasm, and while Elizabeth often gets the spotlight for being the voice of Jane Austen’s “witty social commentary”, Mr. Bennet has his fair share of quips as well.
A great example in this chapter is his comment that he felt that this letter of Mr. Collins was a matter of some delicacy and required “early attention”. But he also says that he received the letter a month ago, didn’t answer it until two weeks after he received it, and then two weeks after that , he brings it up to the rest of the family.
So now, on to the infamous entail.
In the early days of the English aristocracy, the right of primogeniture was fairly well established. This was the right of the first born son to inherit his father’s estate, rather than having that estate divided amongst all the children.
There are a bunch of reasons why this happened, but one of the main reasons for its beginnings was social influence and security. Adam Smith writes about this in the classic economics text, The Wealth of Nations:
When land was considered as the means, not of subsistence merely, but of power and protection, it was thought better that it should descend undivided to one. In those disorderly times, every great landlord was a sort of petty prince. His tenants were his subjects. He was their judge, and in some respects their legislator in peace and their leader in war. He made war according to his own discretion, frequently against his neighbours, and sometimes against his sovereign. The security of a landed estate, therefore, the protection which its owner could afford to those who dwelt on it, depended upon its greatness. To divide it was to ruin it, and to expose every part of it to be oppressed and swallowed up by the incursions of its neighbours.Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
So primogeniture had two main goals. First, to make sure a family’s land remained intact, by not dividing it amongst all the children. And second, to keep the land tied to the family’s name by making sure only the oldest son inherited. Because if a daughter inherited the estate and then married, that estate would then pass to a new family line.
But primogeniture is only half of the story here. Because that right alone did not stop the heir from parcelling up the land to sell it off as he pleased.
So in addition to the right of primogeniture, there were also Entail restrictions.
The English law governing how entails worked was codified in a 1285 statute called De donis conditionalibus, which sounds a bit like a Harry Potter spell.
There were basically two ways to inherit land in English law: “Fee simple” and “fee tail”. First, the term “fee” is a latin derivative of the word “fief”, which just means “estate of land”. You can think of “fee simple” as “the land is simply yours to do what you want”, whereas “fee tail” inheritance says you can’t sell the estate to anyone except your rightful heir (often referred to as the “tenant in tail”).
The rules around this restriction are complicated and vary somewhat over the years, so sometimes different estates would have slightly differing rules about how they could be inherited, how that chain of custody could be altered, and how long the entail lasted.
Typically, because of rules against perpetuities — that is, putting a permeant restriction on land, an entail lasted until 21 years after the death of those creating the entail.
However, families with particular pride often worked around this restriction by renewing entails in each generation. But, this had to be done with both the current owner’s and heir’s consent. While that might seem difficult to pull off, it was actually relatively easy.
Imagine you’re the heir of a large estate. You’ve been brought up all your life as the chosen one set to inherit everything. And maybe because of that, you’ve never been to fussed about financial prudence.
One day your father calls you into his study and says, “Son, I don’t want you selling off our family’s ancestral land to just anyone.”
“Of course I won’t father. You know me…Mr. Family pride…”
Your father narrows his eyes at you, perhaps thinking of our outstanding gambling debts and the wonton way that you spend money when you visit London.
He smiles. “Of course son, of course. But just to give you an extra incentive, I want you to sign this legally binding entail that will prohibit you from selling the land to anyone except your heir.”
Now, this goes against your plans for financial freedom and “being your own man”, so you hesitate a little.
Your father smiles again and says, “Son, I can see this is difficult for you. So in exchange for signing this document, I will sign one of my own that guarantees you an annual living allowance until I leave this earth. Now, if you don’t want either of us to sign these things, well…” he shrugs as if to say, “good luck finding the funds to pay for your extravagant lifestyle.
You look at your father, who is in relatively good health, and will likely live at least another ten or twenty years. Sighing, you sign the papers. Now the land is entailed until 21 years after you die.
Unless you decide to have a similar conversation with your heir one day.
Most legal scholars agree that the 1925 Law of Property Act ended the ability of estates to be entailed, though some maintain that certain restrictive aspects of the entail still exist in the form of things like conservation easements, rights of first refusal, and deed covenants, all of which serve the purpose of allowing a former land owner to set the terms by which land may be used by successive owners.
Let’s talk briefly about Mr. Collins’ relationship with Lady Catherine:
I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England.Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 13
Last season we discussed how in regency times, the term “patron” in had three common meanings.
It could mean a patron of the arts, someone who paid to support one or more artists in their work. The term could also refer to someone who donated money or resources to a charitable cause.
But here the term patron refers to patronage in the church, which was the right a wealthy landholder had to appoint a living to a clergyman.
The assignment a clergyman had was referred to as a “living”, and it could produce varying amounts of income, depending on its size, management, and the composition of parishioners who lived within its boundaries.
We’ll talk more about the economics of a living when we discuss Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, where their details are more integral to the plots of those books.
In the tail end of the earlier quote, Mr. Collins mentions that he is ready to “perform those rites and ceremonies” of the Church of England, which Elizabeth refers to here:
…Elizabeth was chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it were required.Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 13
These list of “rites” of the Church of England are sometimes referred to as “Rites of Passage” because they mark important transition periods in a person’s life, such as birth, baptism, marriage, and death as they pass along their mortal journey on their path to return to the presence of God.
According to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, which was published in 1571 as the foundational set of doctrines for the Church of England, these rites can be divided into two groups, the set of rites or sacraments instituted by Christ (sometimes called “Sacraments of the Gospel”), and those later adopted or taught by the apostles (sometimes called “Sacraments of the Church”).
The Sacraments of the Gospel include Baptism and Communion (also called the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist). The Sacraments of the Church include confirmation, penance, ordination, marriage, and extreme unction. This latter rite is sometimes referred to as “ministering to the sick” or “anointing the sick”.
Since this is often performed just prior to someone’s death, it is sometimes referred to as “last rites”, though most clergy disapprove of this term because the rite of Extreme Unction is available to anyone who is dangerously ill, not just those who are terminally ill. And therefore someone may receive Extreme Unction more than once during the lifetime.
Before I get a bunch of angry letters accusing me of misconstruing Anglican doctrines, it’s important to note that the beliefs and practices of the Church of England during the regency era are not necessarily exactly the same in all regards as those practiced by its members today.
Nor do all churches that form the Anglican Communion have the exact same interpretation of the 39 articles.
As with all religions, if you want a good overview of the beliefs of the Church of England, or any other Anglican Church, I suggest you reach out to a practicing member.
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