Today we talked about the Parable of the Prodigal Son in GD class. I asked the class how the father’s estate would be divided between his two sons, and the first answer I heard was the one I was expecting: 50/50. That would be normal in our culture, and I offered that that is indeed what my will provides vis-a-vis my two children. But then I heard someone give the correct answer: 2/3 to the elder, 1/3 to the younger. This is due to the principle of primogeniture, under which the eldest son got a double portion of inheritance (the theory being that he also had a duty to care for the mother if still alive).
I have a theory (which I’ve never committed to writing) that the patriarchal narratives of Genesis reflect a subtle commentary to the effect that the practice of primogeniture worked a certain injustice. That’s because in practice, the covenant never seems to actually flow through the eldest son. Starting with Abraham, we see that Isaac supersedes Ishmael, Jacob supersedes Esau, Joseph supersedes Reuben, Ephraim supersedes Manasseh (and in several of these instances, the supersession was an explicit part of the narrative). And then we see the same thing in the Book of Mormon, where Nephi supersedes Laman.
Someone asked about what happens to daughters in this scheme, and used the example of parents with five daughters and no sons. The opening was too good not to seize, so we spent the next 15 minutes of GD class in a detailed discussion of the works of Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice).
When I introduced this line of discussion, I asked how many Jane Austen fans we had in the class. Lots of hands went up; they were all sisters, none of the brethren. So I (jokingly) said that I was secure enough in my masculinity to acknowledge that I’m a romantic and love Jane Austen!
The plots of several Austen novels revolve around the injustice to women of the then still common practice of entailment of estates. Entailment was an ancient practice flowing from feudal conceptions of property. The idea was to keep large landed estates intact and in the family, rather than breaking them up as would happen if they were freely alienable. So typically the land would go to the eldest son, and to no other child. So younger sons would have to find their way in the world some other way (often in the military or taking orders with the church).
And what about the women? Well, they were expected to marry. And if they didn’t, they were pretty much screwed. (I didn’t use the word “screwed” in class, but I wanted to…) It wasn’t like they could easily get jobs (there were precious few jobs open to women of that social class). If they didn’t marry, they had to hope some compassionate relatives would assist them (as we see in Sense and Sensibility).
Mr. Bennett had a life estate in their land, but since he failed to produce a male heir, upon his death you go back up his line and then down again until you find a male heir. And in this case the presumptive male heir would be a cousin of some sort, Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins is ridiculous and Elizabeth Bennett is way out of his league, and so we moderns cheer when she turns him down, and we think her mother silly to try so hard to push the match. But understanding the legal situation puts matters in a somewhat different light. Mr. Collins was doing an honorable thing by coming and seeking a wife from among Mr. Bennett’s daughters. And Mrs. Bennett knew that when her husband died Mr. Collins would take the estate and its income, and so you can well understand how anxious she would be for one of her daughters to accept the proposal, ridiculous or not. And it puts Elizabeth’s refusal in a different light as well; the chutzpah it took for her to turn down Mr. Collins, knowing full well what was at stake, is striking.
The practice of entailing estates never caught on in this country, as it seemed anti-democratic, to smack of aristocracy and the landed gentry, so it seems like such a foreign practice to us. And laws have changed in England, so that the injustices of entailment no longer exist. But it has been less than a century since the difficult results we see in Austen’s novels would have obtained.
I think the class enjoyed illustrating challenging results from various forms of primogeniture from the writings of Jane. I know that I did.