How women inherited in the olden days

This post was inspired by this one: Heroines in an era lacking women’s rights

In Pride and Prejudice, the reason the five Bennet daughters must be married is because there is an entail on their father’s property, they will not be able to inherit it, and without a marriage and a husband, they will be dependent on their father’s heir.

That, in summary, is how we think of nineteenth century women. They were under the control of their fathers and then their husbands. They could not own property, did not seem to inherit it much, could not vote or work, and were constantly pregnant.

If a woman remained single (as Jane Austen did), she could run the land she inherited (if she inherited any) and keep her own earnings and inheritance. When the woman married, she ceased to be her own person. Beforehand, however, if she had conscientious parents, guardians or lawyers, a marriage settlement could be drawn up to ensure that whatever she brought into the marriage would pass to her children, for example, or that if her husband died first, there were provisions made for his wife and children’s care.

A widow could inherit property and money from her husband and administer it. If she remarried, however, all of that would be controlled by her new husband. And if the husband stipulated in his will that his wife was not to have custody of their children, then so be it. A woman did not have a legal claim on her own children in those days.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Duchess starring Keira Knightley, you know that this applied even to a powerful woman like the Duchess of Devonshire–her husband threatened to take away their children and not let her see them (which he could) if she didn’t break off her affair with Charles Grey.

What often confused me is this thing called an entail. It’s a legal term that I have come across in many a Regency-set book. It’s an obscure estate law thing and only applies to the upper middle class and upper classes.

To use Downton Abbey as an example. The Earl of Grantham likely owns many estates. His largest is Downton Abbey. When the Grantham title was created, it was specified to be inherited by heirs males, so none of his daughters can inherit the title. But can they inherit the estate, in addition to the money they are guaranteed under Lady Grantham’s marriage settlements? The estate is entailed.

Entailment is when a property cannot be sold, willed or messed with by the owner and automatically passes to the next male in line. It’s meant to keep the land in the family. For a titled lord, the estate was supposed to pass to his heir to provide them with not only a place to live but an income to support the way of life they felt a title would require.

The Bennets are not titled, but their estate is entailed. Entailments are binding: sometimes they are made in the creation of a title or an estate or in wills, but they are damn hard to break. In Downton, it’s mentioned that to break the entail would mean an Act in Parliament.

How This Relates to the Keegans
When I first became acquainted with my characters, the Keegan family, I had to imagine what sort of inheritance Alexandra and Madeline Keegan would get. Alexandra is illegitimate. That carried a stigma. The good thing is, Alex is raised by her wealthy father, who acknowledges her as his own and raises her. However, illegitimate children did not inherit unless they were specifically specified in wills.

Miles Keegan builds up a large shipping company. He is wealthy, owns an estate, owns a townhouse and several ships. He has investments. Once I realized that not all English estates were entailed, then I figured that since Miles is buying a place for himself to settle, he could leave the place to whoever he wants to and we can ignore entails.

From what I’ve researched, it seems that one son could supersede daughters. So, if Miles had a son, the son would inherit the estate and the girls would get money and personal possessions. So, no son. Daughters often inherited land together. So Mady and Alex and their younger sister and stepsister would inherit the estate together, but the money they inherit would have to specified (in Alex’s case). With the amount of wealth I want them to have, the girls have lawyers and trustees looking after the money and looking closely at their future husbands.

I imagine that Lord Banston, their guardian, would be pretty strict about their marriage settlements and how much remained under the girls’ control. If the girls are still unmarried at age 21 (age of majority), then I wanted Alex and Mady to gain control of a portion of their inheritance; the rest of it will be saved for investments, provisions for widowhood and children, and their annual income.

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