The Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice were considered gentlewomen because their father, having inherited money, did not have to work for a living. In Jane Austen’s era, families with inherited money were considered to have a higher class and social standing than a family that lived on an income gained through hard work and labor. However,
The squire of a great country house, in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, standing on his terrace looking out across his broad acres, was rarely the owner of his land or even his house. He was the life tenant, in possession of the family capital but unable to deal with his estates as if he owned them outright. His interests were subordinate to those of the family, and the family was of more importance than he was. He was the king in check, his freedom of manoeuvre limited by a peculiarly English system of inheritance, the strict settlement (English & Saville, 1983, p. 11).
As the plot of Pride and Prejudice unfolds, one starts to sympathize with silly Mrs. Bennet’s determination to marry her daughters off to practically any eligible (and unknown) man who happened to stop by the neighborhood. Due to the stipulations of Mr. Bennet’s will that only a male heir can inherit his estate, none of the Bennet girls will receive any of their father’s money. Unless they married well, they will be left destitute. For Mrs. Bennet the situation was made even more galling knowing that Mr. Bennet’s cousin, a man the family had never met, would also inherit Longbourn House, their family home.
Mr. Bennet to Mrs. Bennet:
“About a month ago I received this letter, and about a fortnight ago I answered it, for I thought it a case of some delicacy, and requiring early attention. It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.”
“Oh! my dear,” cried his wife, “I cannot bear to hear that mentioned. Pray do not talk of that odious man. I do think it is the hardest thing in the world that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”
Jane and Elizabeth attempted to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason; and she continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about.
“It certainly is a most iniquitous affair,” said Mr. Bennet, “and nothing can clear Mr. Collins from the guilt of inheriting Longbourn. But if you will listen to his letter, you may perhaps be a little softened by his manner of expressing himself.” – Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 13
As it turns out, Mr. Collins, a ridiculous and self-important man, had good intentions. He arrives at the Bennet’s doorstep determined to ask for one of the Bennet daughters’ hand in marriage. In his mind, his generous act would make up for the unfairness of the will’s stipulation. Mr. Collins tells Mrs. Bennet about his desire to court Jane, the eldest daughter. When Mrs. Bennet informs Mr. Collins that Jane is practically engaged to Mr. Bingley, he quickly turns his attentions to Elizabeth, providing one of the most memorable marriage proposals in literary history, and one that I relish reading over and over. Learn more about entails from Wikipedia below:
Pride and Prejudice contains a particularly thorny example of the kind of problems which could arise through the entailing of property. Mr. Bennet, the father of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, had only a life interest in his property, known as Longbourn. He had no authority to dictate to whom it should pass upon his death, as it was strictly arranged to be inherited by the next male heir. Had Mr. Bennet fathered a son, it would have passed to him, but it could not pass to any of his five daughters. Instead, the next nearest male heir would inherit the property; in the course of the novel, this was revealed to be Mr. Bennet’s cousin, William Collins, a minister in his mid-twenties. The inheritance of the Longbourn property completely excluded the five legitimate Bennet daughters. Such entails typically arose from wills, rather than from marriage settlements, which usually made at least some provision for daughters.
Read more about the topic here: The British Aristocracy, Capital and Income, and Nineteenth Century Company Accounting, Christopher J. Napier
Illustration by C.E. Brock. In the novel, I recall the proposal scene occurring after breakfast. I do not recall Jane describing Lizzie at her sewing table as Mr. Collins proposes.
Update: Read more about the entail as explained by a British lawyer named Henry in a post I titled: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Entail in Downton Abbey and More.