Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice is one of the famous works in the literary canon that deals with the question of entail. The Bennett daughters at the center of the story must marry because if they do not, their odious cousin Mr. Collins will inherit their home, Longbourn, when their father dies. This worry drives Mrs. Bennett in her matchmaking zeal – the good marriages of Elizabeth and Jane would help ensure the continued well-being of the family. But Austen was not the only English novelist to use the issue of entail as a plot device. George Eliot’s lesser known novel, Felix Holt, the Radical*, derives much of its action from the inheritance of an entailed estate and a lost heir.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, to entail an estate is “[t]o limit the inheritance of (an estate) to only the owner’s issue or class of issue so that none of the heirs can transfer the estate.” Halsbury’s Laws of England (4th ed. reissue, 1998, vol. 39(2), ¶117) provides background information about the origin of entail. It arose out of the Statute of Westminster the Second, 1285, 13 Edw. 1, which was enacted during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). As Halsbury’s states: “[a]n estate in tail in its widest form is where land or tenements are limited to a man and the heirs of his body … An estate in tail general may be restricted to heirs male or heirs female.” (ibid. ¶118)
The estate at the heart of the Felix Holt novel is that of Transome Court. In the introduction we learn that Transome Court is a place about which there had been “a fine sight of lawsuits.” Apparently, “Generations back, the heir of the Transome name had somehow bargained away the estate and it fell to the Durfeys … But the Durfeys claim had been disputed over and over again.” (p. 9) As we learn later, the 18th century owner of Transome Court, John Justus Transome, had entailed the estate on his son Thomas and his son’s heirs. Being a forward looking man, John Transome had further directed that the estate should descend to his relations the Bycliffes if the direct line died out. However, Thomas Transome was apparently both profligate and prodigal and he sold his rights of inheritance in the estate to his lawyer cousin Durfey**, creating a “base fee.” A base fee “continues as long as there are issue in tail who would have inherited under the entail if they had not been barred.” (Halsbury’s ¶¶134, 135) In other words, as long as the direct line of John Transome continued, the Durfeys could legally hold Transome Court. In the course of the novel, the last remaining direct heir of the Transome line is killed during a riot but the current owner of Transome Court, the dashing Harold Transome (actually a Durfey – see note below), is unaware of the terms under which he holds the Transome estate.
As is frequently the case in Victorian novels, the new true heir to the Transome estate is a beautiful young woman, Esther Lyon. Her true identity is obscured by a variety of devices including changed identities, greedy servants and local attorneys, and her well-meaning adoptive father. In the meantime, Harold discovers the truth and the family lawyer Jeremyn tempts him to conceal it so that he might keep the estate. However, as in all the best stories, those who make the right choices are rewarded while those who lie and cheat come to a bad end. Esther is offered the choice between true love in the form of the poor but worthy Felix Holt, or wealth and the possession of Transome Court. Harold, who is tempted to lie to Esther, chooses to be honest and is rewarded. The evil Jeremyn is forced to flee and leave behind his ill gotten wealth!
Perhaps the most curious feature of a novel that is so focused on legal issues is the impracticability of Esther’s final action in refusing the estate and leaving it to the Durfey family. Eliot had been so concerned with ensuring that the legal details in the novel were correct that she had consulted a solicitor to ensure the accuracy. Yet, in the real world, the legal issues left unaddressed at the end of the book would have likely spawned a multitude of suits, such as the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which was featured in Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
* I have referred to the 1995 Penguin Classics edition of Felix Holt, the Radical, edited by Lynda Mugglestone.
** The Durfey family changes its name to Transome after the purchase of Thomas Transome’s interest in the Transome Court estate.