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Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Updated on January 31, 2013

Modern Pride and Prejudice: A New Look At Women and Property Rights of the Victorian Era

There appears to me a great contradiction in the reading of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, and its modern interpretation. Drilled into students' heads is the conventional doctrine that women in earlier generations had little or no right to own property. Pride and Prejudice is used as evidence to those claims of unfair treatment of the female sex. Such weak interpretive claims are supported by modern thinkers who profess that "There simply isn't any objective historical 'reality' out there... the facts of history are subjective..." (Lynn 128-129,137). Furthermore, "Feminist theoreticians in every field... are convinced that no purely factual studies exist..." (Stolba 8).

Contrary to feminist claims, many scholars believe there is truth, and the truth can be discovered. One piece of evidence standing alone can be skewed to support most ideas of any subject, but the more evidence stacked up will support truth and reveal mistakes of misguided interpretations of history.

Alexander Pope wisely stated, "A perfect judge will read each work or wit/With the same spirit that its author writ:/Survey the WHOLE, nor seek slight faults to find..." (Pope II: 33-35). Pride and Prejudice standing alone has been used to support the idea that women could not own property, but the more light we can shed on the details surrounding the plot, the more it will help us understand what the author truly meant for us to get out of her novel.

Purpose of Jane Austen's Book Pride and Prejudice

Expose your pride and give your prejudices about Jane Austen's purpse

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Victorian Inheritance traditions

Clearly the main theme of Pride and Prejudice plays off the idea that the Longbourn estate cannot be transferred to either the widow or the daughters of Mr. Bennett at his death, but rather to Mr. Bennett's nephew Mr. Collins, the nearest male kin (Austen [a] 27, 54, 55, 57, 61, 89, 109, 137, 187); however, if the laws were strictly that women could not own property, how does Lady Catherine de Bourgh become heiress of Rosings (Austen [a] 58-59)? Furthermore, how could Lady Catherine plan to will the estate and perhaps all her wealth to her daughter, Miss de Bourgh, rather then it going to her next male kin, Lady Catherine's nephew, Darcy (Austen [a] 71)?

Jane Austen is accused by modern readers of pointing out the flaws in women’s property laws in the Victorian era through satiric style. Why then has Austen made prominent female-characters wealthy property owners? Perhaps because women who owned wealth was not as uncommon as we have been lead to believe. Alastair Owens, a researcher in this field, has found that women property holders were more common than contemporary literature suggests (299-300). Another historical researcher Christine Churches similarly claims girls inherited on an equal basis as boys—though boys generally received real property (real estate or land), and girls received chattel (or personal property) (165).

Inheritances in the Victorian era differed greatly from those of our time and culture in many ways. For one, “gifting”—or the dividing and dispersing of property—was thought of as a trivial practice reserved for friends and distant kin. Most of these smaller gifts were not even included in wills. Instead, the needs of the potential widow and the tenant’s children were carefully considered, planned, and carried out with the expert help of others (Owens 304).

Jane Austen and British Property Law

In some instances the family did not directly inherit property or money. In these cases, property was handed over to trustees upon the tenant's death, at which time they were sold, debts were paid, estates were purchased, and investments were made. The profits made by the investments were distributed as annuities to the family of the deceased. An illistration of this type of will, is found in the will of George Fern, a grocer from Stockport His wife received a 300 pounds annuity the first year and 200 pounds each year following. Each of his children received 30 pounds per annum. This type of inheritances was used to circumvent common law that restricted female kin from receiving personal property for their own use (Owens 307-308). However, this was not the only way to transfer property to a female inheritor.

A simple transfer of property and possessions to female kin was acceptable, and perhaps the method in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh received her inheritance. Often times property was divided (though mostly unequally) and then dispersed among benefactors. In these cases, property is generally willed according to needs and level of responsibility. Depending on circumstances of the family, one person may be the sole benefactor under agreement that the benefactor supports the widow and siblings. In Owen's study, 15% of wills ordered all property to go to a single individual (308).

Austen illustrates this idea in Pride and Prejudice where the Bennetts had hoped to have a boy who could take on the estate and provide for the rest of the family (Austen [a] 249). It is also shown in her book Sense and Sensibility. The story begins where a rich married woman had not given her right of property to her poor husband. At her death, she willed her money to her only son. The man remarried, and had three daughters. Just before his death he asked his son to use his inherited wealth to support his step-mother and 3 sisters, because the father's meager earnings was not enough (Austen [b] 1).

Rights of Inheritance

Blackstone's Commentary

Females were far from unable to possess land (Berg [a], Berg [b]) or receive an inheritance. Though Catherine de Bourgh is fictitious, the fact that the Victorian author Jane Austen included her and meant her to be a serious and believable character, is indication of that possibility. Though common law had some pull in women's right to own property, Churches admits that, "...a widow commonly enjoyed much more property from the marital estate than the law entitled her to..." (166).

Because women could own property-inherited or earned-they also were equally able to will them to a person of their choice. In fact, according to Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, though male heirs were usually first in line for inheritances, women had an equal or greater chance if the property was owned or passed down through the mother (vol. II p. 234).

The situation in 1726 of the widow of Anthony Nicholson provides a historical example of women being allowed to pass property on through the line of women, as she was the sole inheritor of her mother's estate. The 1829 will of Widow Elizabeth Mottershead provides another real example of both women's right to will their property, and women's rights to inherit. Nearly all of Mottershead's estate was transferred to her daughter Hannah, and only one shilling was given as a "gift" to her other sons and daughters (Owens 316).

A search through a United Kingdom's government website, called Online Documents, found 278,982 wills during the 72 years of the Victorian era (1819-1891; because no wills were found in years 1892-1910 they were excluded from the search). Using a systematic sample, a small sample size of 500 will summaries (18% of the total population) were examined. Three hundred thirty five (67%) of the tenants were male, while nearly one third (165) were women tenants.

While the above finding gives an idea of the commonality of women who own and willed their property, Owens suggests that adults who wrote out wills were only a minority. In the England town of Stockport, only 5% of dying adults wrote wills between the 17th and 19th Centuries (302).

If most people today accepted the idea that Lady Catherine was able to own and will her daughter the Rosings estate, it would be believed that Miss de Bourgh would only lose the entire inheritance if ever she were married. This popular idea does not reflect legal reality of the day. England's law viewed a married couple as "one person," the wife "incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband," yet only ecclesiastical courts upheld this view, while civil courts held husband and wife as separate persons, thus "each with right to have separate estates, contracts, debts and injuries: and there… a woman may sue and be sued without her husband" (Blackstone Vol. I, 430, 432).

Contrary to popular belief, women were not made to give up their property to their husbands on marriage, it could instead remain her property on court records. Churches stated, "If she came to court to surrender it while married she was examined 'alone and in secret' by the steward (following Chancery practice) to ascertain that she was not being coerced by her husband" (170). Austen must have known these rights of women to own their own property though married, because she indicates this knowledge in Sense and Sensibility. The story begins with a woman who, though married, wills her son all her wealth; none of which was ever owned by her widowed husband (Austen [b] chapter 1).

In Fee Tail Male

A private agreement, not public law

To this point, women's right to own, inherit, and will their property has been discussed; however, what has not been explained is why the Bennett wife and daughters were unable to receive their father's property upon his decease. It is here where the misinterpretation of Victorian law is made.

It is of importance to note here that in most of the instances that the Bennetts are mourning over their future loss of the estate, they indicate that it is the fault of the entail (Austen [a] 27, 54-57, 109, 118, 137, 187, 249).

An entail is a settlement restricting the terms of who can inherit and estate. French law, which derived from Roman law, all property was with held from women through entails. But English law, having derived from feudal law (and Germanic law) was not so stingy on these particulars. Families who owned the land on which they lived where corporate owners, and could choice the line of succession. Joint family, on the other hand, often settled on entails. This was when a family would live on some land, but not hold the deed or title. ("Succession" 4). Entails had time limits lasting several generations, though 100 years (or three generations) was reasonable time. Entail lasting beyond a reasonable time, had to be occasionally renewed (Hendrickson and Lansdowne).

In the Bennett's cases, the estate was in fee tail male "which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed in default of heirs male" (Austen [a] 27). In some cases complex entails are given prohibiting obscure relatives from inheriting estates, such as Mr. Collins (see Austen [a] 322, footnote I: VII: 1).

The settlement the Bennetts had agreed to still allowed some money to be given as inheritance-viz. 5,000 pounds to be divided up among daughters and the widow Mrs. Bennett. Also, it is mentioned that had Mr. Bennett saved some money, it could have been used to provide for his family after his death (Austen [a] 249). There is evidence that women were not strictly banned by law from inheritances.

In fee tail male entails, whether common or rare, were by no means necessary by law. Lady Catherine de Bourgh admittedly commented her distaste for such settlements, "...I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family" (Austen [a] 249).

So great a favorite is the female sex of the laws of England

Though I am confident that my study of the property rights of women has shed further light on Austen’s views of women’s property rights, still further study is needed to answer additional questions, such as: if women were able to possess and maintain the property they owned or inherited in the early 19th century and before, then what was the cause or need for drafting the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, in which women were said to be given the right to maintain their upon becoming married. Similarly; what was the need for the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870, and Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882, which granted women the right to own property (Craik).

Austen has described well the details of women’s inheritance and property rights. She seems to have known the property laws of her time and give a fair and accurate portrayal of them. But modern readers, over eager to prove inequality of women, seem to have misjudged her story as a satire on the poor conditions of women. As Pope warned, “’Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill/Appears in writing or in judging ill/…Ten Censure wrong for one who writes amiss” (I: 1-2, 6).

Our culture has allowed prejudices to rule our education of these eras without first understanding either the laws or the rationale for establishing them. We have allowed our pride and prejudices to blind our minds and thus believe our opinions of fairness is shared by people of all times and cultures. When in reality, our culture would more then likely have been detested by both men and women of the Victorian age.

Though women may seem to us to have been thought of as the property of men, the view of that time would reveal differently: “These are the chief legal effects of marriage during the covertures; upon which we may observe, that even the disabilities which the wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit. So great a favorite is the female sex of the laws of England” (Blackstone Vol. I, 433 emphasis added).

Text module

References

Austen, Jane [a]. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Vivien Jones. Penguin: England, 1996.

- - -. [b] Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Candace Ward. Dover: Toronto, 1996.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A facsimile of the First Edition of 1765-1769, Volume I. University of Chicago: Chicago, 1979.

- - -. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A facsimile of the First Edition of 1765-1769, Volume II. University of Chicago: Chicago, 1979.

- - -. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A facsimile of the First Edition of 1765-1769, Volume IV. University of Chicago: Chicago, 1979.

Berg, Maxine [a] “Women’s Consumption and the Industrial Classes of Eighteenth-Century England” Journal of Social History. Winter 1996, p. 415-434.

- - -. [b] “Women’s Property and the Industrial Revolution.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 24(2), Autumn 1993, 233-250.

Churches, Christine. “Women and property in early modern England: A case study.” Social History. May 1998, 23(2)165-179.

Craik, Elizabeth M. Women and the Law in Victorian England. Retrieved 4/16/2004 at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~www_se/personal/pvm/W...

Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. 20o & 21o Victoriae. Chapter 85, p. 532-546.

Hendrickson, Emily & Judith A. Lansdowne. “Addressing the Duke and Inheriting his Loot,” a guide to English titles, forms of address and inheritance laws during the Regency period. Presented July 28, 1999 at the Beau Monde Conference. Retrieved 4/21/2004 at http://it.uwp.edu/landsdowne/als.html

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. University of South Carolina; 2001.

Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870. 33o & 34o Victoriae. Chapter 93, p. 577-581.

Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882. 45o & 46o Victoriae. Chapter 75, p. 454-462.

Online Documents. Retrieved March 27, 2004 from http://www.documentsonline.pro.gov.uk/default.asp

Owens, Alastair. “Property, gender and the life course: Inheritance and family welfare provision in early nineteenth-century England.” Social History. Oct. 2001, 26(3), 299-317.

Pope, Alexander. “Essay on Criticism.” Essay on Man and Other Poems. New York: Dover, 1994, p. 4-23.

“Primogeniture.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001 retreieved 4/16/2004 at http://www.bartleby.com/65/pr/primogen.html

“Succession.” The Encyclopeadia Britannica, vol. 26, Britannica: New York, 1926, p. 2-5

Stolba, Christine. “Lying in a Room of One’s Own: How Women’s Studies Textbooks Miseducate students” as quoted in exfemina: The newsletter of the independent women’s forum (June 2002).

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    • theallin1writer profile image

      theallin1writer 5 years ago

      Interesting angle you took! Good work.

    • writerkath profile image

      writerkath 5 years ago

      One of my favorite stories!

    • blessit3 profile image

      blessit3 5 years ago

      Love this! Thanks!

    • Baddew Fibes profile image

      Baddew Fibes 5 years ago

      Intriguing analysis of the novel and fantastic lens.

    • chinchilla-cages profile image

      chinchilla-cages 5 years ago

      Always interesting to hear how a piece of work such as Pride and Prejudice affects someone.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Very interesting explanations on inheritance rights for women. I'm not so sure Jane Austin was seeking to promote women's rights. I think she knew what makes a good story!

    • profile image

      judit 5 years ago

      i love your explanation on the law, and i like very much your neutral position toward the women's inheriting rights.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      No matter what we find in any book, not just in Pride and Prejudice, if it is any good, every reader will find his/her own interpretation.

    • VspaBotanicals profile image

      VspaBotanicals 5 years ago

      Great lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      "Pride and Prejudice is used as evidence to those claims of unfair treatment of the female sex. " Pride and Prejudice is fiction. If people want to prove what kind of rights women had during that time, can't they do good research just like you did to publish this lens and get the facts? No biggie, I suppose. It's not like there's a court case going on about this matter. Good lens!

    • montanatravel52 profile image

      montanatravel52 5 years ago

      Very interesting, I learned quite a bit, thanks!!

    • profile image

      Li-Li-ThePinkBookworm 5 years ago

      I love all the research you show in this lens. I always thought that Pride & Prejudice was a just a fun story about odd people in silly situations. I normally ignored people who tried to argue about the political view of the book, but you really prove their theories unfounded, and for that I thank you. Keep up the impressive work :)

      Li Li

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 5 years ago

      I read this book so long ago, but have enjoyed many of the film interpretations of Jane Austen's works.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Thank goodness times have changed for women.

    • mrsclaus411 profile image

      mrsclaus411 5 years ago

      Nice work on this lens.

    • TheBLU26 profile image

      TheBLU26 5 years ago

      Great lens! I love this book and all of Jane Austen's works!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Nice Collection.

    • SheilaMilne profile image

      SheilaMilne 5 years ago from Kent, UK

      Just one point, the book was published in 1813 which makes it Regency not Victorian. Victoria came to the throne in 1837. But otherwise, it's a very interesting perspective. I had to study the book when I was sixteen. That was a very long time ago. :)

    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 5 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      You have a thoughtful perspective,

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Nice work on this lens!