Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On the Principle of Entail

On my bedside table rest three immoveable works.  Mrs. Miniver, the scriptures and Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.  It sounds way (WAY) more schmance-y than I am. When I'm flossing my teeth of a late evening, these make great books to dip into.  

So when I was blow-drying my hair the other day (you should see me--criss-crossed legs sitting on my bathroom floor, bent in half, hair blowing around madly and reading) I had Alexis open.  He was discussing the laws of entail and primogeniture.  (Bless you.)

He knew as he looked at her in the moonlight that here was someone who shared his perfectly rational ideas about real estate.  Tara!  Chidlake!
And that got me thinking.  We have a ton of cases in The Canon wherein estates are entailed to the eldest son (possibly a baron, a hot, hot baron).  We have lots of feckless younger brothers (possibly because they have no inheritance to speak of) and wicked uncles who exist only to kick dogs and run our heroines out of their birthplaces. In the case of Tabitha in Moonlight, Chidlake is a much-beloved estate (un-entailed, which is why some cheap floozy can come in sell it), adored by generations of demure mousy types who could nevertheless rock a white bikini while vowing to hold onto their ancestral lands.

There was a good deal of discussion at the time of our original post over whether Scarlett Tabitha was being entirely rational about, what is, after all, a home that her father didn't even bother writing a favorable will about.  And no matter how many charming House Tours o'Love we get in The Canon, I can't help but think of all those ancestors who didn't have the good luck to be born a man and first and got pushed into the middle classes to do their poor best marrying women with thick ankles and really, really indifferent features (instead of gorgeous features on what we are assured is a plain face).

I say no.  I'm from gross America (I repeat myself) and, worse, the West coast of gross America.  Inheritances of any scale or even generations of occupancy on a family farm are somewhat rare out here in The Land Founded By Disinherited Second Sons.  Those with more posh pedigrees and all that rich history (that is still, nevertheless, probably owned by a distant cousin) would possibly lean towards yes.  Here's what Alexis says:

Among nations where the law of inheritance is based upon the rights of the eldest child, landed estates mostly pass from generation to generation without division.The result is that family feeling takes its strength from the land. The family represents the land, the land the family, perpetuating its name, history, glory, power, and virtues.  It stands as an imperishable witness to the past, a priceless guarantee of its future. 

When the law of inheritance institutes equal division, it destroys the close relationship between family feeling and the preservation of the land which ceases to represent the family.  For the land must gradually diminish and ends up by disappearing entirely since it cannot avoid being parceled up after one or two generations. The sons of a wealthy landowner, provided they are few in number and fortune favors them, may entertain the hope of being no less wealthy than their father but not possessing the same property that he did.  Their wealth will of necessity derive from sources different from his.

The instant you remove from a landowner that interest in the preservation of his land which is fueled by his family feeling, memories, pride, ambition, you can take it as certain that sooner or later he will sell up. 
Prince Harry's heart lept as he clutched his letter.  He'd go show that heir that he was no longer a spare.  "Congratulations!  You may already be a winner."

And here's what The All-seeing Wiki has to say about it:

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the abolition of the laws of primogeniture and entail in the law of inheritance of private property (as opposed to inheritance of a monarchy) result in the more rapid division of land and thus force landed people to seek wealth outside the family estate in order to maintain their previous standard of living, accelerating the death of the landed aristocracy and also quickening the shift to democracy.

And as much as I'd adore inheriting a landed estate, I can see he has a point.  On one side, there's all that family history.  (And I'm not being snarky here.  That's a big deal.) On the other side there's all that...democracy.  What say ye?  Primogeniture:Wealth Consolidation? or Icky and Unfair?


  1. Betty van den BetsyJanuary 12, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea of the state being able to tell people how they can dispose of their personal property upon their deaths, but is that beginning the drift of the good ship TUJD toward political shoals? And I'm not sure if that's what actually happened in England, or if it was just a question of cultural custom that led to entails.

    One of the benefits of pre-determining who inherits something of value is that it eliminates argument over who deserves it. Of course, it may also lead to "riding accidents" for oldest sons... One of the gross disadvantages is that too often, the property is inherited by someone entirely unsuited to and possibly uninterested in managing it.

    The idea that women are automatically disinherited is anathema to me. I know some properties were inheritable through the female line, but it seems most were not.

    Ideally, the person best suited and most inclined to being a strong steward/guardian of the property (whether it's land, factories, artworks or secret recipes) should inherit; if several kids are equal and able, divide it up. I don't see a defensible interest for either state or family in creating permanent upper- and lower classes.

    Georgette Heyer has a few books that delve into this; The Unknown Ajax and A Civil Contract are especially good on the effects of primogeniture.

    1. The concept of primogeniture was not restricted to the upper classes. And it did make sense in some ways.

      Let's say there was a nice little farm, big enough to feed a family. The farmer and his wife were blessed with 7 (living) children.
      The farmer dies.
      The eldest son inherits: There is still a nice little farm, big enough to feed a family.
      Divided by 7 (and what about the farmer's wife): ???
      I daresay determining which of the children was best suited would not always have been easy and would have led to a lot of trouble and perhaps even hatred among the siblings.
      Primogeniture: Everybody knew where he or she stood. The firstborn son knew he would inherit and the other children knew they had to find employ elsewhere, unless there was work for them on the family farm.
      And I'm NOT saying it was fair.
      I've read both novels: "The Unknown Ajax", my latest acquisition by Georgette Heyer, is a fun read, though some of the characters make you "wish you knew how to gnash" your "teeth". I've read "A Civil Contract" several times and I like it even better. Some of Georgette Heyer's side characters could well have served as models for some of those annoying Neels side characters, wouldn't you say?
      Betty Anonymous

    2. Old inheritance laws had their place. Even old Jewish laws favored sons and the protection of their inheritance through a kinsman redeemer should they die without a son. In feudal days when most commoners' welfare (or lack thereof) hangs on the prosperity of the local lord, it was probably in their best interest to support wealth consolidation. As became the course of history, when common laws progressed towards democracy, primogeniture has become really outdated.

    3. Betty van den BetsyJanuary 12, 2012 at 6:19 PM

      And certainly it doesn't help the other six kids -- much -- to get a small landholding that can't feed a family, but in an era when people didn't grow up expecting, and able, to get jobs that would provide them with salary enough to feed a family, what did they do? In England it seems like they joined the church and too often served it poorly, joined the army or navy and good luck to them, or maybe taught, secretaried or did law or business, if they were of the right (not aristocratic) class. If they were female, they either married or lived as dependents on relatives who may or may not have treated them well.

      I've read a few novels lately in which middle-aged women from middle-class families, in the middle of the 20th century, either widowed or never married, struggle terribly to stay alive -- Bunny in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced speaks eloquently of the terror and pain involved in being truly hunger, but needing any money available to pay rent so she wouldn't be sleeping on the street. That's not the result of primogeniture, entirely, but seems certainly to reflect an attitude that a privileged few are entitled to plenty, and those who aren't blessed (by whatever -- divine right, happenstance, looks or personality or something) deserve their difficult fates.

      I'm glad I live today. And I love every character in The Unknown Ajax; they make the book fun!

    4. Regarding "the state being able to tell people how they can dispose of their personal property upon their deaths," that is also happening in democratic America now. I've known people whose inheritance became meaningless due to estate taxes. There was a news article recently where a train passenger sued a dead person's estate because when he committed suicide on the train tracks, his body parts injured her!

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  2. I think it's so interesting that even if our Neels heroes aren't the oldest in the family, they seem to invariably be the oldest son! Seriously though, I'm super glad not to have to even worry about inheritance laws (splitting nothing 28 ways is still nothing...) but thank heavens it existed so that all the marvelous books based on the same could be written!

  3. ...but is that beginning the drift of the good ship TUJD toward political shoals?...

    No, I don't think so. Not many states have that kind of power any longer so, if there are political shoals attached then they were buried long since by a government public works dam-building project... ;0)

    1. Betty van den BetsyJanuary 12, 2012 at 6:20 PM

      Three Gorges or Hoover? ;-)

      I love the image of you reading and blow-drying at the same time. That is commitment!

    2. I have crazy thick hair. I actually get a lot of reading done that way. You should have seen me when we were still doing reviews. Book, paper and pencil had to be arrayed before me. Yes, sometimes I used my feet to keep things in line. ;0)

    3. Betty van den BetsyJanuary 13, 2012 at 9:04 AM

      Want photos -- someone get a request to the Minjheer...

  4. Side point - if the U.S. were founded by second sons, the colonies were probably the third son’s criminal black sheep/livestock. Yah!

    That’s fascinating that Alexis believes that the dissolution of the primogeniture or inheritance laws hastens the spread of democracy. I had to wiki democracy because its a hugely complicated area with lots of levels. It’s generally mixed in my mind with forms of capitalism, taxation and trying to reconcile differing cultural, political and social viewpoints. It’s a very interesting type of illiberal democracy -freedom of speech press, no vote - practiced here in adjunct to the English system of democracy that gets further stretched compared to the U.S. history. But it would seem logical to have heavier tax on a larger estate, Betty Lulu, as it works within the equation of certain types of democracy, keeping both inheritance (somehow freedom of choice) within the ideals of meritocracy. Still, confused about it all.

    Not really on topic but this reminded me of a Vanity Fair article by Charles Spencer, he would, bemoaning the collapse of the landed gentry and their beautiful estates by divorce rates and the second/third wife syndrome rather than the slower generational slide. He argues that these wicked stepmothers, having no traditional relation to the estates, retain little desire or aptitude to keep them in their treasured and singular collected glory. Does that mean we can a fast track democracy through divorce… the younger trophy wife, not only economics in action, now a figurehead spreading the dream of freedom and sovereignty to all peoples.
    Betty AnHK

    1. Dear Betty AnHK,
      I am not trying to be critical, but dare I say your confusion shows? Because some of the things you say are confusing - or do I mean cryptic? - anyway, you really lost me here: "keeping both inheritance (somehow freedom of choice) within the ideals of meritocracy."
      Keeping "both" (implying two things) "inheritance" and what??? "within the ideals of meritocracy"? (Clarify?)

      Dear Betty AnHK, I have to say I am always quite fascinated by your philocophical excursions. So keep it up!

      And, "the younger trophy wife, not only economics in action, now a figurehead spreading the dream of freedom and sovereignty to all peoples". - Brilliant!
      Betty Anonymous

    2. Betty Anonymous,
      teehee...sorry I wrote it and I can't figure out what it means. I really tried to think about inheritance and democracy but, generally, I dunno? From a personal experience I just can't decide because I get primogeniture mixed up with monarchy. My friends who have estates, I think good for them if they want to follow with the traditions of the eldest inheriting their family land and wealth its personal choice and all that, we should all have the freedom to decide who gets what after we die. And there are many of them with old money and titles who have a deeper and fascinating relationship to land. That wonderful noblesse oblige in regard to patronage and sacrifice over all those generations which seems inspiring. The literature is amazing! But then on the other hand, I believe in an ideal of democracy which has its basis in meritocracy. This does not go hand in hand with the amount of privilege in class systems and all that inequalty rahrahblahblah. I pointed out that this is prob. a very colonial/post colonial persepective because we are discussing if we should be apart from the monarchy and its still hard for many to get ahead because of the weight of these traditions and that continued inequality. Tricky!
      Betty AnHK

  5. I can't let this thread go by without mentioning the most famous literary entail of all: Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennett's estate is entailed only to a male heir, meaning that Mr. Collins will get it, rather than one of the Bennett daughters, thereby creating (or at least heightening) Mrs. Bennett's desire to marry off her girls.