he intended to bequeath it

Category: Custom & Law | Type: Historical | Title: Sense and Sensibility (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 1

Inheritance is an issue of supreme importance to the landed gentry, as it is, along with money, to Austen. 

This novel's plot originates, as do Pride and Prejudice's and Persuasion's in a matter of inheritance that has baleful consequences for the women of the family. This is a patrilineal society (property almost without exception descends through the nearest male relation, and property is power), and estates are almost always entailed (Search) to ensure that the eldest male inherits the property and money (though that becomes an issue later in the novel). Nevertheless, the women are hostage to the life spans and judgment of the men.

The "old Gentleman," a bachelor who died just a few years before the novel's opening, created unnecessary financial difficulties for his nephew, Mr. Henry Dashwood, who is dying as the novel opens. With his death these difficulties descend upon his wife and three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. The daughters have a half-brother, for this is their father's second marriage, for he'd earlier been widowed. His wife had been wealthy in her own right and, as was customary, her property in the form of a "jointure" (Search) went to their young son, John. He now is married and the father of a boy about three. 

 The dying Henry Dashwood had every reason to suppose that the old Gentleman would leave him not only the estate but with that all of its revenues, also customary. But he did not, which meant Henry could not accumulate money for his wife and daughters. Though his first wife had been wealthy, that money it was determined by the conventional "articles of marriage" would go, if she predeceased her husband, to any offspring.  The second Mrs. Henry Dashwood was not wealthy. Henry Dashwood properly counted on the substantial revenues from Norland enabling him to accumulate dowries for his daughters and a maintenance sufficient to support his wife and them, should, as is happening, he pre-decease her. 

Yet the old Gentleman's behavior has been both capricious and ungrateful. His nephew and wife and three daughters moved into Norland and cared for him lovingly throughout his later years. But he became besotted by a very small child and his manipulative, acquisitive parents. The old Gentleman left the discretionary income to his great-nephew, the wealthy young father of the little boy (had it been a girl, would he have done that?) This is both unkind and unnecessary. John has already inherited a great deal of land and money from his mother and then accumulated a good deal more upon his marriage. As a result of the old Gentleman's whim, four women are made economically vulnerable and the prospects for marriage of three of them are jeopardized by the lack of sufficient dowries.  

As in every Austen novel marriage and money are inextricable, and money plays at least as great a role in determining the women's futures, which is to say their marriage, for they have scarcely any future unmarried, as their character, talents, and beauty. 

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