Bias of Family Histories?

November 12, 2015 at 11:43 am (books, estates, europe, history, jane austen, research) (, , , , , )


Readers of Jane Austen all recognize the (lack of) funds heroines likes Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood have as their marriage portion. And, what happens to the family estate when their fathers die: Norland goes to the only Dashwood son; Mr. Collins, a male relative, will inherit Longbourn.

But, in a highly interesting and exceptionally valuable book, A.P.W. Malcomson tells us that the HEIRESS, such as Wickham’s Miss Grey, may have been as cash poor as anyone else. Marriage portions didn’t always get paid, or paid in a timely manner. Sometimes, the lady’s fortune was quite tied up by trustees, and sometimes “a fortune” ended up meaning that you inherited nothing else other than your marriage portion – even when your parent had a healthy bank account.

This last seems to have been the lot of Mary (Lady Smith; née Gosling) and her sister Elizabeth (Mrs. Langham Christie). A letter written by Augusta Wilder, Emma’s eldest sister, passes on news following the decease of father William Gosling, partner in the Fleet Street firm Goslings and Sharpe, in January 1834. He left the bulk of his HUGE estate to Robert Gosling, the eldest surviving son. (Elder brother William Ellis Gosling predeceased their father by only three weeks.) The main item going to Bennett and Thomas Gosling (the remaining sons) was the country estate of Roehampton Grove, although each were said to be receiving a healthy £135,000. Mary and Elizabeth, who had married, respectively, in 1826 and 1829, surely thought some further monies would come to them – one a widow and the other living “in limited circumstances & with an increasing family” – especially given the size (possibly up to a million pounds, in 1834 currency) of Mr. Gosling’s estate.

Augusta Wilder’s letter passes on information gained from young Charlotte Gosling. Augusta wrote:

“It seems to me perfectly unfair to heap riches so upon the sons & portion off the daughters with comparatively such small sums.”

Augusta’s mention of “to cut off I may say the daughters with 20.000 is inexplicable” reflects the marriage portion Mary was said to have brought with her in 1826 (which was a decided surprise to Mrs. Chute! She wrote of it in a letter).

Charlotte Gosling, one of two children born to her mother, formerly the Hon. Charlotte de Grey (the Walsingham barons of Norfolk were her siblings), still had a living mother – which circumstance was seen as a blessing to Augusta: “Charlotte who if her mother were dead would be very poorly off after what she has been used to…”

Augusta said of the news of William Gosling giving so little to his daughters, in comparison to his sons: “It really passes our comprehension & is quite distressing – for it is irreparable; no wonder Mary did not wish to talk about the will.–”

Writing on the same day (but from a different place), Spencer Smith, Emma’s brother, passed on knowledge (gleaned from a Gosling cousin, Henry Gregg) “that Mr Gosling out of his vast wealth has left her [Mary] & Elizabeth nothing, or what is next door to it”. Bennett Gosling could tell Spencer about his own inheritance (Roehampton and a sum of money): “The bulk of the property … is entailed in the most strict & inconvenient manner possible, & the Will … is most exceedingly complicated.”

Such documents – diaries, letters, wills, settlements, court documents – are the bread and butter of Malcomson’s edifying research into THE PURSUIT OF THE HEIRESS: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland, 1740-1840.

heiress_malcomson

Books.google has a “healthy” preview of the book – it is what convinced me to buy a copy. You cannot beat BooksIreland, which has the hard cover for £9.99 (on sale from £24.99) or the eBook at £7.99. Although the airmail postage to the U.S. from Northern Ireland was as much as the book, even U.S. readers will want to plump for the hard cover; it is so fully illustrated and a handsome book.

Malcomson discusses a range of topics. His first chapter introduces the idea of “the by-passed heiress” => the woman who seems on the brink of inheriting, but who in fact may not only be “by-passed” in favor of a male – she may also have her “fortune” so tied up in the estate of her deceased parent that funds aren’t even forthcoming to her! Mention is made, for instance, of two sisters – daughters of Edmond Sexten Pery (Viscount Pery). The father’s estate passed to a nephew (son of the Viscount’s brother), “the 1st Earl of Limerick. In toto, the ladies seem to have received c.£20,000 each. £5,000 of which represented their original (and still unpaid) marriage portions. (These figures are belied by the usual family anecdotage, according to which one daughter got £60,000 in cash and the other the equivalent in land.)”

On the heels of the Pery girls comes the tale of the co-heiresses of Sir Arthur Brooke, bart. Selina and Letitia Charlotte received marriage portions – which, along with another debt, were evidently “charged” to the estate (ie, monies taken out after the owner’s death; in short, while his bank account remained healthy, “less” was there to be inherited). The Brooke “estates were not huge, and Francis Brooke, the nephew who succeeded to them, and Francis Brooke’s descendants considered themselves aggrieved and impoverished by the open-handedness of Sir Arthur. This is typical of the male whingeing of the period and of the bias of family history written by men. It would be more to the point to suggest that the two by-passed heiresses… were not well done by.”

Makes me glad to come from a family with no money or landed estate…

Other chapters touch on “the younger son”; “The ‘marriage of affection'”; and “Elopements, mésalliances and mis-matches”. All are fascinating topics, and relevant to Smith and Gosling research, as well as Austen studies.

As mentioned, the volume is generously illustrated (full color more often than not), and the writing is engaging and always informative. The research is deep and well presented; the focus (geographically and chronologically) is tight and always on point. Generous notes; a useful bibliography; a handy index.

HIGHLY recommended. Five full inkwells.

* * *

  • a note: Malcomson’s earlier treatise on the same subject, from which this book grew – given new information and sources, has the same title. This edition was published in 1982 and has the years “1750 to 1820” in its title (70 pages). Malcomson rightly claims in his preface that the volume under discussion above (published in 2006 by the Ulster Historical Foundation [same as in 1982]) is “new, greatly enlarged and more widely focused”.

heiress_malcomson earlierthe 1982 edition
(not to be confused with the 2006)

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