The Entail as a Plot Device

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If you’re a fan of PBS’s historical period drama Downton Abbey, then you know what an entailed estate is. The legal title to the country estate, Downton Abbey, is to pass only to “heirs male.” Unfortunately Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and his wife Cora have three daughters and no sons. The oldest daughter Mary is to marry a distant cousin who is the heir presumptive – which is the hope of keeping the daughters from penury. But the cousin dies in the wreck of the Titanic and an even more remote cousin, Matthew, becomes the heir presumptive. Next we see the machinations of trying to persuade Mary and Matthew to marry. They do eventually marry and Matthew dies, but not before producing a son George – a new heir to the Earldom and Downton Abbey.

The entailed estate, also called a “fee tail” originated in feudal times and was designed to ensure the descent of an estate to a series of powerful and wealthy male descendants. It was thought better to keep the estate intact in one heir, so it would not be divided in smaller and smaller pieces at each generation level, resulting in a few generations of the family being reduced to a collection of small farmers or peasants.

The hardship that an entailed estate creates for daughters and second and third sons is the plot of many novels and movies. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet has five daughters and no sons. On Mr. Bennet’s death, the entailed estate will go to a distant cousin. Mrs. Bennet’s goal in life, therefore, is to see all five daughters married well lest they become moneyless paupers. This is the backdrop for the love story between Elisabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

In Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, the entail ends with Lord Marchmain. An entail is not forever, but is limited by the Rule Against Perpetuities. He wonders what to do with his estate now that he is free to leave it by will to whomever he wishes, and uses this freedom to influence, intimidate and generally try to control his family until his dying day.

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