2002 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
“The Family of Dashwood”: The Effect of Wills and Entailments on Family Connections in Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen never shied away from the subject of money. Her personal letters to Cassandra discuss money matter-of-factly: the amount received for Jane’s pianoforte, their father’s proposed income, Jane’s earnings from publication. This is family business, of course, but Austen also straightforwardly informs her readers about the financial status of her characters. From Darcy’s £10,000 a year to James Morland’s proposed £400, from Miss Grey’s £50,000 to the Dashwood girls’ £1,000 apiece, yearly incomes and inheritances are included as an integral part of characterization. But wealth does not consist of pounds alone. Estates, the income they generate, and the social positions they confer were serious matters. Family was defined in a “traditional conservative and expansive sense: consist[ing of] members of a land-owning tribe … as its property is held from generation to generation, going from one male heir to another” (Doody viii). Obviously, Austen was aware of this definition of “family.” But in Sense and Sensibility, Austen defines “family” in a different way. Although wills and entailments do tie a family together legally through the succession of titles and lands, true family is connected by love, compassion, and emotional attachment.
Entailments and primogeniture have deep roots in English history, going back to 1066 when William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, united England, and established the system of feudalism. “Under feudalism,” critic and lawyer Luanne Bethke Redmond explains, “only one able to perform the feudal incidents [or duties] could inherit—that is, one who could bear arms” (46-47). Although legally “ownership could only be in a person … in the minds and hearts of the landed gentry the family was the true owner” (Redmond 48), and entailment was used to keep land in the family.
Jane Austen establishes in the very first sentence of Sense and Sensibility how entrenched this view of family is in English society: “The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex” (1). Although we, as readers, will be concerned with the Dashwood family that contains Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, in the eyes of society, Old Mr. Dashwood and his heirs Henry, John, and Harry are the Dashwood family whose “estate was large, and [whose] residence was in the middle of their property” (1). In this way, Austen sets up very early that she will be contrasting two very different types of family: one defined by “the succession of the Norland estate” (2) and one by “constant attention … [and] goodness of heart” (1).
Austen proves in the first three pages of Sense and Sensibility that wills and entailments do keep a family joined in the legal sense. By making Henry Dashwood the “legal inheritor of the Norwood estate” and ensuring that Norwood is passed on whole to John and then Harry, Old Mr. Dashwood guarantees family connection. But it is a connection that excludes the very women who had “from goodness of heart [given] him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive [and] added a relish to his existence” (1).
John Dashwood, who “had not the strong feelings of the rest of the family” (3), illustrates the possible devastating consequences that family connection based on legal obligation alone can have. Although he is the Dashwood women’s closest blood relative and therefore has the greatest moral responsibility for them, he is easily persuaded by his “narrow-minded and selfish” (3) wife that his father expected nothing as “strange and unreasonable” (9) as a gift of money towards their upkeep. Rather, Fanny convinces him that “looking out for a comfortable small house for them (4), helping them to move their things, and sending them presents of fish and game, and so forth” is all that “might be reasonably expected” (9). After all, they are only “half-blood” (7). In accordance with their legal rights, Fanny “installed herself mistress of Norland; and her mother and sisters-in-law were degraded to the condition of visitors” (5). The Dashwood women are essentially homeless, yet John feels no ties of moral responsibility. Instead, he is comforted by the thought that he has “strictly fulfil[led his] engagements” (10) in doing all that is required by law.
In fact, large inheritances, rather than binding people together, can make them interchangeable commodities in the marriage market. Mrs. Ferrars plans Edward’s marriage to “the Hon. Miss Morton, only daughter of the late Lord Morton, with thirty thousand pounds” (196), but when these plans fall through, she simply substitutes another son. When Elinor mentions to John Dashwood the absurdity of the situation, supposing that “the lady … has no choice in the affair … [so] it must be the same to Miss Morton whether she marry Edward or Robert,” he is shocked: “Certainly there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son (259).” To Mrs. Ferrars and John Dashwood there is only one criterion for choice—money.
Austen demonstrates throughout Sense and Sensibility just how much inheritance influences the marriage market. Willoughby, who “had always been expensive,” intended to “re-establish [his] circumstances by marrying a woman of fortune” (280)—Miss Grey, with her “fifty thousand pounds” (I 68)—despite his attraction to Marianne. His actions are not surprising, for even Mrs. Jennings explains that “when there is plenty of money on one side, and next to none on the other” (168) romance can take a back seat to economics. Beauty sometimes compensates for a lack of fortune, as Mrs. Jennings hopes when she claims that Marianne would be perfect for Colonel Brandon, “for he was rich and she was handsome” (31), but a loss of beauty lowers one in the marriage market. Because Marianne worries herself sick over Willoughby and, in John Dashwood’s opinion, “destroys the bloom forever” (198), he “question[s] whether Marianne now, will marry a man worth more than five or six hundred a-year, at the utmost” (199). Thus we see families being formed, not on the basis of love and respect, but on inheritances, yearly incomes, and how much one is willing to pay for beauty.
This money-oriented view of family could make Sense and Sensibility a bleak novel indeed, but Austen also skillfully creates strong characters who practice kindness and feel true emotional connections. Very early in the novel, Austen sets up Sir John Middleton as a foil for John Dashwood and emphasizes the comparison by giving both characters the same first name. Mrs. Dashwood, while “suffering under the cold and unfeeling behaviour of her nearer connections,” receives a letter from Sir John, “a relation of her own … written in the true spirit of friendly accommodation … earnestly press[ing] her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park” (19). Because she can no longer bear the “misery of continuing her daughter-in-law’s guest” (20), Mrs. Dashwood accepts his offer, and their reception at Barton Park stands in stark contrast to the treatment they have received from John and Fanny: “Their arrival seemed to afford him real satisfaction … [He] pressed them so cordially to dine at Barton Park, … left them a large basket full of garden stuff and fruit [and] a present of game” (25). We see the “very exertion[s] to which [John Dashwood] had limited the performance of his promise to his father” (21) being performed by Sir John Middleton freely and with great enjoyment.
But Austen’s most effective illustration of what a family should be is the Dashwood women themselves. Mrs. Dashwood is obviously aware of money and position, for we see her, “by [Willoughby’s] prospect of riches, [being] led … to hope and expect [marriage], and secretly to congratulate herself on having gained two such sons-in-law” (42). This attention to future provision, especially considering the precarious position of the single woman, is certainly prudent. But Mrs. Dashwood does not judge potential husbands by money and position alone. When Sir John points out that Marianne should try to “catch” Willoughby because he stands to inherit Allenham Court, Mrs. Dashwood replies that “catching” a man “is not an employment to which [her daughters] have been brought up. Men are very safe with us, let them be ever so rich,” and she expresses pleasure that Willoughby is “a respectable young man” (38). When she notices Edward and Elinor’s attachment, “it was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality. It was contrary to every doctrine of her’s that difference of fortune should keep any couple asunder” (12). Thus we see that affection outweighs money in Mrs. Dashwood’s eyes.
Both Elinor and Marianne also judge potential mates by character, not money. Elinor never even mentions money in her assessment of Edward, but talks of his “sense and goodness, … the excellence of his understanding and principles … his solid worth” and “pronounce[s] that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct and his taste delicate and pure” (16). Marianne is attracted to Willoughby’s “good abilities, quick imagination, lively spirits, and open, affectionate manners” and finds “exquisite enjoyment” (41) as they read, sing, and talk together. Although the sisters may admit that money is a necessity, both find true pleasure only in an affectionate companion of intellect, taste, and integrity.
The Dashwood women’s treatment of each other also illustrates the true principles that bind a family together. Elinor and Marianne, when invited to London by Mrs. Jennings, consider whether their “dearest, kindest mother” would be made “less happy, less comfortable by [their] absence” (133). The sisters’ affection for one another is also obvious. When Marianne is hurt by Willoughby’s defection, Elinor “took her hand, kissed her affectionately several times, and … gave way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne’s” (157-58). Marianne also champions Elinor. She is provoked by “ill-timed praise of another, at Elinor’s expense” and warmly comes to Elinor’s defense: “what is Miss Morton to us?—who knows, or who cares, for her?—it is Elinor of whom we think and speak” (206). And later, when Elinor experiences her own disappointment in love, Marianne comforts her with “tenderest caresses” (230). Even after their marriages, they remain in “constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate” (335). Thus, by narrowing the focus to the intimacies of a nuclear family, Austen intensifies her portrait of what a true family should be.
Jane Austen knew that after the death of her father, she would also, like the Dashwood women, be dependent on others; the family politics played out in Sense and Sensibility must have resonated deeply. Austen, unlike Charlotte Lucas, was not willing to marry a man whom she did not esteem solely for the sake of security, and this attitude truly left Jane dependant on the mercies of her brothers. She must rely on her family’s compassion, and it is not odd that she would expect it. Austen was, as Irene Collins points out “a deeply religious woman” (xi) who had diligently practiced charity herself Accordingly, in Sense and Sensibility, Austen examines the plight of the unattached female who is disenfranchised by the feudal entailment system. Her story illustrates that family is much more than legal obligation and suggests that that this evil of society can be overcome by a single person armed with kindness.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter. London: Hambledon, 1998.
Doody, Margaret Anne. Foreward. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. vii-x1vi.
Redmond, Luanne Bethke. “Land, Law and Love.” Persuasions 11 (1989): 46-52.