V.20, NO.1
“Willy-Nilly” and Other Tales of Male-Tails: Rightful and Wrongful Laws of Inheritance in Northanger Abbey and Beyond

Deirdre E. Gilbert, a life member of JASNA, teaches English at the University of Denver. She is a doctoral candidate in Literary Studies.

Long before Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey and exposed Frederick Tilney as a profligate heir-at-law, Chief Justice Sir John Popham lashed out at the custom of primogeniture. As J. H. Baker and S.F.C. Milsom record in Sources of English Legal History: Private Law to 1750,   Popham objected to laws of landed property that “forced willy-nilly a father to leave his heritage [to his eldest son].” The willy-nilliness of inheritance laws has created a nation of “disobedient and sensual” eldest sons, fumed Popham, “undutiful in demeanour… and in manner and conversation dissolute.” Furthermore, Popham opined, “such laws are utterly contrary to the providence of God”1(157).

Popham’s indictment in 1594 was an objection raised from time to time against primogeniture, the first law of landed property that governed future interests of landowners. Moreover, the system of primogeniture had been further complicated by such institutions as the entail and the strict settlement. All these laws of landed property had been bandied about ad infinitum, and Austen’s novels reflect the consequent entanglement of life. As one of Austen’s earliest works, Northanger Abbey serves as a kind of template wherein Austen creates her own debate over the willy-nilliness of inheritance laws. My primary reason for choosing to entangle myself with laws of landed property emanates from the connection Chief Justice Popham makes between disobedient, sensual sons and the willy-nilliness of inheritance.

Austen often juxtaposes a prodigal first-born son with a much more deserving younger brother—what ensues is a contest of sorts. Behind the fictional contest are historical and legal realities, ones that still entertain squabbling scholars. In Northanger Abbey Austen dramatizes the moral tangle of landed property laws, and in my paper I attempt to disentangle the moral from the legal strands.

Primogeniture, the rule that land descends to the eldest son to the exclusion of his siblings, was the prime rule of English common law, established shortly after the Norman Conquest, and remained so until 1925, when it was changed by statute. Under primogeniture, daughters and younger sons were at the economic mercy of their father or elder brother, who could allocate to them as much or as little as he chose. Concepts such as entail and strict settlement supported the basic idea behind primogeniture—to prevent the disintegration of large estates through divisible inheritance. By the seventeenth century, the tangle of rules that secured estates in one big bundle had become more than an armload and much more than a mouthful. Indeed, I am tempted to defer to Miss Morland in my endeavor to explain the wherefores and the whatnots of primogeniture, inheritance laws, and laws of landed property: “‘I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible’”(133).

In 1681 Lord Chancellor Nottingham attempted to make the rules intelligible and integrate them under one law. His interest in the laws of property proceeded from a personal experience involving his eldest son’s impending marriage. The bride’s family was pressing for a strict settlement in order to assure that no land sales could take place without the consent of the groom-to-be, Nottingham’s eldest son. Thus, the bride and her family were chasing a hefty piece of tail-male, as it were. Nottingham’s objections to a strict settlement were manifold: first, the father became subject to the son; second, for large families (his family had fourteen younger children!) future land sales that might be necessary in order to provide for other children were prohibited; third (and ironically), it placed limitations on the son’s ability to provide for his future family. His son, Nottingham argued, would be unable to add “a shilling [to his wife’s] jointure or to his daughter’s portions.2

Nottingham’s attempt to integrate the laws of inheritance in 1681 were in vain, and at the time Austen was writing, inheritance laws were understood by few. In fact, even Austen herself was confused. For example, in Pride and Prejudice the entail that Mrs. Bennet decries is arguably a strict settlement. By the date of Pride and Prejudice,  had the arrangement been a simple entail, Mr. Bennet could have brought it to an end at any time. But because Mr. Bennet could not do so, the circumstances that plague and baffle his wife must describe a strict settlement rather than an entail. On the other hand, Austenites who label Mr. Bennet a “dead-beat dad” might argue that Austen made no error: remaining steadfast in his library, Mr. Bennet simply could not be bothered to end the entail. In any event, given Austen’s apparent confusion, perhaps readers should be less quick to judge poor Mrs. Bennet. As we remember, despite the attempts of Jane and Elizabeth to explain the nature of an entail, Mrs. Bennet always found the subject “beyond the reach of reason”(62).

Whether entailed or strictly settled, the Bennet estate is destined to end up in the hands of the absurd Mr. Collins—an example of silly-willy-nillyness. As a rule, however, Austen’s prognostications are far less humorous and equally more grim. She often takes great pains to contrast the profligate heir-at-law with his more deserving younger brother. “Disobedient and sensual” heirs such as Northanger Abbey’s Frederick Tilney suggest a strong connection between a right to property and a right to willful behavior. In creating Captain Tilney, Austen seems to bear out Popham’s censure of laws that would force fathers willy-nilly into bequeathing all to the eldest son.

Austen, however, does more than simply censure laws of landed property in Northanger Abbey. She includes several stories of inheritance in Northanger Abbey, each one reflecting different aspects of a complex argument. On one hand, she dramatizes that landowners were the backbone of the country; laws ought to ensure that family lands remained in the family, ideally in perpetuity. On the other hand, she illustrates the profligate heir that Popham disparages; laws need to limit the damage the errant heirs are empowered to inflict. Moreover, she includes a story of inheritance of an unlanded family to provide yet another aspect of eighteenth-century life that further complicated the issues that had faced landowners—the interchange between landed families and other groups in society.

The initial story, the Morland family’s, supports the theory that eighteenth-century family life was more loving and egalitarian than family life of preceding centuries, and inheritance procedures reflected this burgeoning spirit of family feeling. Catherine Morland’s father (despite his unfortunate name—Richard) was “a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and very respectable… had considerable independence and two good livings”(13). When eldest son James asks permission to marry Isabella Thorpe, we become privy to his father’s “kind intentions,” a phrase from which we may infer Richard Morland’s good-hearted, though certainly not extravagant, generosity. His intentions include “a living…of about four hundred pounds yearly value…[and an] estate of at least equal value, moreover, was assured as [James’s] future inheritance”(135). Nothing portends to pit James against his younger siblings. The laws of inheritance that govern the Morland living apparently follow the system of primogeniture without Gothic consequences: no starving younger sons or sold-off daughters lurk between the legal lines. In fact, the Morland family feeling that emanates leads us to believe that Reverend Morland will find ways to provide for all ten of his children (in fact, quite well—Catherine ends up with three thousand pounds!). When his time comes to provide for his own future family, heir-at-law James will, doubtlessly, follow suit.

On the other hand, John Thorpe, unlanded heir-at-law, leaves no question where his prime interest lies—with himself alone. His initial action, “a [slight] and [careless] touch” of his sister’s hand illustrates his lack of family regard while his “whole scrape and…bow” to Catherine demonstrates the moral level to which he will stoop for a fortune(45). The financial situation in which the Thorpe family finds itself may demonstrate the erosion of the rights of dower that common law once protected. The dower, which at the time of Edward I provided a widow with a third of her husband’s estate, was slowly replaced “willy-nilly” by jointers, settlements, and other laws of inheritance. Given Austen’s “like father like (elder) son motifs,“ it would be reasonable to speculate that the now-deceased Mr. Thorpe had modeled the carelessness that John now practices. Mrs. Thorpe’s settlement, under terms that the “worthlessness of lords and attornies [sic] might set forth,“ falls short. As Mrs. Allen smugly notes: “the lace on [Mrs. Thorpe’s] pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own“(34). As her situation stands, Mrs. Thorpe finds herself a shortchanged widow with three daughters to marry off and three sons to educate. Enough provisions have launched the Thorpe sons upon predictable and traditional lines, ones that potentially offer financial security: John, the eldest, attends Oxford; second son Edward goes to Merchant-Taylors; third son William is at sea. If eldest son John is any example, it is doubtful that the opportunities provided for the Thorpe sons will suffice; in their fortune-hunting quests, it is likely that occasions for a steady rise in financial or social affairs will be overlooked.

In the third story of inheritance, younger Tilney brother Henry introduces his elder brother, Captain Frederick Tilney. We meet him through an image with which Henry entertains his sister and Catherine Morland. Henry has teasingly described the “riot” in Eleanor’s mind: a “‘mob of three thousand men’” begins Henry’s image; it concludes with “‘the gallant Capt. Frederick Tilney, in a moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brick-bat from an upper window’”(113). We later understand that Henry’s playful image was surely expressing an unconscious wish on his part, thus revealing a telling tale of entail in and of itself!

Whether on or off his horse, Frederick Tilney epitomizes Popham’s “disobedient and sensual” son. When we meet him in the flesh, he recalls Fitzwilliam Darcy, as he looks down his nose at the selection of dancing partners in the Upper Rooms. Within Catherine’s hearing, Frederick “not only [protests] against every thought of dancing himself, but even [laughs] openly at Henry for finding it possible”(131). Unlike Darcy, Frederick fails to redeem himself. The spoken word often serves as a moral index to Austen’s characters, and in keeping with this model Frederick’s words are always spoken in the lowest sorts of whispers. Though initially “within her hearing,” Frederick’s speech becomes increasingly inaudible to Catherine. What she does hear moves her to a point “quite out of countenance”(147). Gallantly, Austen shields her readers from comprehending Frederick’s whispered words. We only observe that he draws in Isabella at the same time Catherine abruptly walks out of the Pump Room. “Though [his words were] spoken low,” Austen emphasizes that Catherine “could distinguish” Frederick’s speech(147). Before the novel’s conclusion, Catherine is neither blind nor deaf to the immorality of Frederick’s behavior. By hearing just enough of her companions’ low whispering, Catherine learns to distinguish between the immoral sphere into which Frederick draws Isabella and the moral sphere that Catherine, together with Henry, has yet to create. In Frederick’s final appearance, Catherine “scarcely [hears] his voice” as he hisses to his sister, “‘How glad I shall be when you are all off’” (155). As if he recognizes his moral incompatibility with the other three, Frederick wishes and whispers them away.

To demonstrate Frederick’s corrupt, thus undeserving, character, Austen cleverly brings Catherine repeatedly within Frederick’s earshot only to have her rise, figuratively, above him and remain morally upright. When Isabella Thorpe “whispers together” with Frederick, she both figuratively and literally stoops to his level, thus exposing herself as kin to his ways. As a pair of sibilant siblings, Frederick and Isabella represent the idea that blood ties are not always strongest. As an heir-at-law, Frederick’s association with Isabella together with his snub toward Eleanor, Henry, and Catherine render him the “disobedient and sensual” son, whose so-called rightful inheritance becomes “utterly contrary to the providence of God.”

Frederick’s father, General Tilney, is unswerving in his attentions to the preservation of the Tilney family fortune. For the most part, his vigilant eye keeps Frederick in check. His eye also keeps Catherine Morland ill at ease as she “perceives herself to be earnestly regarded” even before their introduction. Though Catherine, confused by his notice, fears there is “something wrong in her appearance,” she later discovers that his earnest regard proves to be the General’s initial attempt to size up Catherine and the prospects she might hold for his son and, more important, for his family(80).

At this point, we might consider another story of inheritance that takes on a life of its own within Northanger Abbey itself. Perceiving his son’s attentions to Catherine, the General asks John Thorpe about her prospects. “Thorpe, most happy to be on speaking terms with a man of General Tilney’s importance” had been “joyfully and proudly communicative….His own consequence always required that [the Morland’s] should be great”(244). Once in Thorpe’s hands, Catherine’s fortune grew tremendously: he overrated, doubled, and trebled; he made her heiress to the Fullerton estate. Catherine’s surname—Morland—became increasingly appropriate and misleading. Unsurprisingly, the General’s interest in her grew proportionally.

Tilney’s micromanagement of his children and his property add up to what could be called a successful application of the custom of primogeniture. His successful strategies for property preservation, however, hardly bear out the theory that eighteenth-century family life was more loving and egalitarian. Particularly when juxtaposed with relationships among the Morlands, Tilney family feeling appears threadbare, though they live in luxury. General Tilney, the smooth operator, unintentionally works at cross-purposes. Repeatedly and ironically, the General gathers his family, only to expose discord. At first, in “giving her the eye,” the General initially gains Catherine’s respect. Yet ultimately she discerns his culpability in his family’s (and her own) distress. Unwittingly, Catherine signals the General’s liability by protesting too much: “It could not be General Tilney’s fault…. He could not be accountable for his children’s want of spirits…. It would be impossible for any body to behave…with greater civility and attention” (129). Through Catherine’s hyperbolized protestations, Austen is conceivably signaling to the reader her own struggle. As a young writer, Austen found herself criticizing a system that she nevertheless was dependent upon. Just as readers discern more quickly and more accurately than Catherine that the General is not only the antagonist within his own family, but also her assailant, we perceive Austen’s distress and ambivalence toward the question of who deserved a “rightful” inheritance. Something as arbitrary as an accident of birth should not dictate the happiness or misery of so many persons, yet other options were unclear to Austen.

Younger son Henry is more likely to carry on with his father’s plans for improvement and more likely to mend family fractures. Yet the custom of primogeniture precludes his chances unless Frederick is, in fact, “knocked off his horse by a brick bat” or meets his demise in some other manner. Henry, following the customary route for a younger son, was slated for the parsonage at Woodston; he will be powerless to act for his father once Captain Tilney inherits. Again Austen’s ambivalence toward these traditional roles emerges. She insists upon moral depth beyond the civilities and charm of Frederick, the elder, yet Henry’s character falls short of the heir she reaches toward—the heir she later dramatizes in Pride and Prejudice through Fitzwilliam Darcy.

In her later novel Mansfield Park, Austen intensifies the consequences of “heritage left willy-nilly.” The Tilney trio—Henry, Frederick, and the General—deepen into a benighted triad—Edmund, Tom, and Sir Thomas Bertram. Because the surfacing problems of tail-male in Northanger Abbey emerge as moral dilemmas in Mansfield Park, we conclude that Austen’s ambivalence toward inheritance laws gradually grows into hostility. The early work, Northanger Abbey, largely concerns a young woman who eventually recognizes the difference between a hair-raising Gothic tyrant and the brute force of General Tilney. In Mansfield Park, however, Fanny Price actually lives out an oppressed life of Gothic proportions—one beyond the experience of Catherine Morland. The legal instruments that largely determine the dynamics of the Tilney three are instruments that have the capability to inflict real torture—to devalue human life—in Mansfield Park.

The Tilney family is darkly mirrored in the Bertram group. Both the General and Sir Thomas are strong authorities who fail as patriarchs: the former through his heavy-handed presence, the latter through his heedless absence. Furthermore, the pairing of errant heir and wronged sibling intensifies in Mansfield Park. Whereas the moral distance between the Tilney brothers is established and then left as is, Tom Bertram must endure a redemptive purge before the novel concludes. Austen sets up the younger brother in Mansfield Park as a scapegoat, the one who must pay for the pleasures of the elder. In turn, the elder son manifests “all the liberal dispositions of an eldest son, who feels born only for expense and enjoyment”(17).

The “like father, like son” shadow cast in Northanger Abbey darkens in Mansfield Park. Whereas Frederick parodies his father’s wanton charm, Tom’s moral insolence adumbrates Sir Thomas’s human exploitation in Antigua. Tom’s flippant contemplation of the “‘short-neck’d, apoplectic’” Dr. Grant, who, in his view, “‘plied well with good things, would soon pop off,’” portends the devaluation of human life his father apparently practices in his involvement in slave trade (24). The rights of inheritance in Mansfield Park take on a diabolical nature as the father-son representatives are not merely opportunists; they are agents of evil.

Austen’s absorption with primogeniture and rightful inheritance reflects the demographic crisis in the preceding century that reduced the general population sharply. Because of the decline in male births, inheritance patterns were threatened. The subject of Austen’s novels—three or four families in a country village—shared fully in this crisis. The systems of inheritance were beginning to fail in their primary mission—to keep estates intact. In response, strategies were intensified to repair the damage. Apologists for maintaining laws of landed property, such as Edmund Burke, promoted the practice of surrogate heirship and its attendant device of name changing. Within Jane Austen’s family, at least two such stories of surrogate heirship occurred: first, Mrs. Austen’s brother came into a fortune, adding Perrot to his Leigh in the process; second, Jane’s own brother Edward also partook in such a strategy when he was adopted by a distant cousin, Thomas Knight. He eventually relinquished the name of Austen for Knight when he inherited. Two recent biographies, both titled Jane Austen: A Life, touch on the Austen stories of surrogate heirship, each presenting somewhat different accounts of how these “strategies of repair” affected Austen and her immediate family. David Nokes speculates that Austen felt abandoned by her brother when he took the name Knight (75); his colleague Claire Tomalin presents a sunnier story (25). In any event, as Nokes notes, Austen herself leaves us only with a customary dry remark: when Edward relinquished the Austen name in favor of the name Knight, she wrote: “I must learn to make a better K”(76).

Does this mean that Austen was content with the simple dry remark? Hardly—in many respects Northanger Abbey is Austen’s first example of a debate she repeats in each of her ensuing novels. Primogeniture, inheritance laws, and property laws provoke much of the action in Austen’s novels. Austen exploits the randomness of birthright and identifies the stakes upon which primogeniture rests. The Tilney story in Northanger Abbey studies the corrosive nature of primogeniture, a corrosiveness that ironically works to keep an estate intact at the expense of intimacy and love among family members. The Morland story tells a quieter tale, one that echoes spokesmen of the period such as Edmund Burke, who proclaimed primogeniture to be the “natural operation of things.” The laws of landed property provide social stability and weight and, according to Burke, “the crucial equipoise that counters all the rampant forces unleashed by the Revolution” (Blakemore 31-35). I argue that the emphasis of Northanger Abbey leads readers to infer the mean-spirited injustice of primogeniture much more readily than its successful tenure of power—its power of displacement supersedes its power of placement. Furthermore, in Northanger Abbey, primogeniture and inheritance laws take on elements of the Gothic by increasingly marginalizing the economic power of women. Tyrannical fathers and profligate sons in Austen’s novels represent the real-life men of power who stooped to new lows in a kind of national frenzy to repair the demographic crisis of the preceding century. In keeping with the manners of the time, women and younger children were first—first to be swallowed up or tossed off in the endeavor.


1    Lloyd Bonfield, “Marriage Settlement, 1660-1740: The Adoption of Strict Settlement in Kent and Northamptonshire,” in Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage, ed. R.B. Outhwaite (London: Clarendon, 1981) 109. This work is a detailed legalistic survery of inheritance settlements. Bonfield documents that Kent maintained traditional inheritance laws while most of England changed. Of interest to Austenites is that Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice lives in Kent, and Edward Knight, Austen’s brother, held an estate in Kent. Obviously Austen was acquainted with the unique situation in Kent—I wonder to what extent this unique situation is reflected in her novels.

2    Susan Staves, Married Woman’s Separate Property in England  (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990) 204-05. Staves consults Pride and Prejudice in her explanation of the “arcane mysteries” of strict settlement. Staves emphasizes that the idea was not merely to see that successive elder sons inherited—the traditional system of primogeniture preferred the elder son as heir anyway. If a landowner should desire an assurance of a male rather than female heir, he could give the land to his son not in “fee simple" but in "fee tail male.”


Works Cited

Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69. Blakemore, Steven. Burke and the Fall of Language. Hanover, New Hampshire: Published for Brown UP by New England UP, 1988.
Baker, J. H. and S.F.C. Milsom. Sources of English Legal History: Private Law to 1750 .  St. Paul, MN: Butterworth, 1986. Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. London: First Estate Limited, 1997.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. London: Viking P, 1997.  

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