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Primogeniture in Sense and Sensibility

by ko on 22/01/12 at 7:09 pm

Primogeniture’s effects on Jane Austen’s highly acclaimed novel.

The doctrine of primogeniture was a key element of the early 19th century. The eldest son would receive the entire family’s inheritance and estate upon the death of the father regardless of the interests of his siblings. Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility is an account of the disbandment and the loss of house and home of a mother and her two daughters. The Dashwood women lose their husband and father in the preface of this novel, and they “inherit” their ensuing predicament as the man of the house receives the family property in his name. Their situation seems hopeless and Mrs. Dashwood is crushed at the prospect of being displaced from her own estate. However, a series of fortunate events establish a new home for the women and this rift of alienation is bridged through powerful enriching experiences in their new home. The Dashwoods’ removal to Barton Park proved to be enlightening and dramatic. The Dashwood girls, namely Marianne, weather this change and ultimately mature in the process.

On his deathbed Mr. Dashwood pleaded his son to take care of his mother-in-law and sisters because of his recognition of the inequity in 19th century inheritance law. His plea was considered by his son (Mr. John Dashwood), “and he promised to do everything in his power to make them comfortable”. (Austen Ch. 1). He was not ill disposed per se but his actions towards his siblings were colored by those of his avaricious wife and he is not as beneficent as Mr. Dashwood anticipates. The sentimentalities of Elinor, Marianne, and their mother “embodied wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it” (Austen Ch. 1) and they gave themselves up wholly to their sorrows. In this introduction to the novel, the dichotomy of “Sense” and “Sensibility” is first revealed to the reader. Elinor, the elder sister of 19, “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her to be the counselor of her mother.” (Austen Ch. 1). Marianne, similarly to her mother, is the sensible one; she indulges in affliction and mourning and is always feverent in some way or the other. Upon her departure, Marianne reflects that “No leaf will decay because we are removed….who will remain to enjoy you?” (Austen Ch. 5) in a clear display of emotion which characterizes her throughout the novel. The Dashwoods’ experiences in Barton Park reveal these qualities and ultimately change them for the better.

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