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Property Law in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:

I recently based part of my Property final exam on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Generations of English lit professors have spilled barrels of ink over this book; but, as far as I know, most of them haven't placed much emphasis on the fact that the plot hinges on a point of property law.

The reason why it is so important for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's five daughters to find wealthy husbands is that they cannot inherit their father's estate, since it is subject to the fee tail - a now archaic form of property estate that was required to pass through the male line. As a result, upon Mr. Bennet's death, his land (which forms the overwhelming majority of his wealth) will go to his nearest male relation, the despicable Mr. Collins. In the early nineteenth century, few women could acquire significant wealth other than by inheriting it or marrying into it; thus the Bennets' predicament. As Austen explains in Chapter 7:

Mr. Bennet's property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs male, on a distant relation; and their mother's fortune, though ample for her situation in life, could but ill supply the deficiency of his.

This plot device is far from the only property-related issue in Pride and Prejudice. It is striking that nearly all the villains in the story (Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, and others), are motivated in large part by a desire to acquire valuable landholdings for themselves or their children. In another part of the story, Austen censures big landowners for looking down on merchants who make their living through trade rather than from income derived from their landholdings. Similar negative views of big landowners appear in several of Austen's other novels, especially Mansfield Park and Persuasion. On the other hand, Austen wasn't completely negative in her attitude towards the landed gentry. The good qualities of one of the key positive characters in Pride and Prejudice are first revealed through the care he bestows on his estate and its tenants.

I'm not going to argue that an understanding of property law is essential to your appreciation of Jane Austen and her work. But it can certainly help! Indeed, property law is probably second only to criminal law as a legal influence on great literature. Yet another reason to study Property (not that we need any more:))! You don't see too many great novels that feature legal issues in corporate law or civil procedure.

UPDATE: I should note, for those who have expressed concern about this issue, that the final exam in question is over, and that in any event knowing that the characters are drawn from Pride and Prejudice would not help anyone answer the questions I based on them; the property issues in the question are not the same as those in the actual novel (unfortunately for the students, the ones on the exam are more complicated:)).

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