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Miss Susan D. asks: The Burning Question. Anyone who spent their formative years reading Georgette Heyer and rounding them off forever with Jane Austen understands that, the tyranny of patriarchy and primogeniture being what they are, it is the Male Heir who must inherit an entailed estate. Not only male himself, but male in his antecedents. Why then does the heir to Longbourn bear the name Collins? Clearly, he has some distaff in his Bennet family history, perhaps Mr. Bennet’s grandfather’s sister’s grandson. That being the case, why wouldn’t a son of one of the girls, a wee Wickham or a baby Bingley or darling Darcy, be prime heir material here? I’ve always wondered. Help me sleep at night, dear Mrs. Fitzpatrick.
Mrs. Fitzpatrick answers: Ooh, Miss Susan, that’s a tricky one! I used to feel superior to Mrs. Bennet when “Jane and Elizabeth attempted to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason . . .”, but having looked into the subject, I feel a new sympathy for her. Luckily, our friends on the Austen-L mailing list (hosted at The Republic of Pemberley) have delved into this question already. Briefly, you are right that if all the strict-male-line heirs have died out, precedence is given to the estate owner’s daughters—the Bennet sisters—rather than to the sons of his sisters, his cousins, or his aunts. (The sons of the Bennet girls aren’t relevant, though I must say my blood runs cold at the thought of a wee Wickham!) Therefore, Mr. Collins is not Mr. Bennet’s grandfather’s sister’s grandson.
So, the Austen-L’s conclude, either one of Mr. Bennet’s male ancestors or one of Mr. Collins’s male ancestors must have changed his name on receiving an inheritance. This was not so uncommon; it happened three times in Jane Austen’s immediate family. The very emphasis on “passing on the name” that entails emphasize meant that people would cheat by adopting a boy and having him change his name. Like Frank Churchill in Emma, whose father was Mr. Weston but who was adopted by the Churchills and became their heir. This leads me to wonder whether Frank would also inherit Mr. Weston’s property if the second Mrs. Weston had a son. Is Frank legally a Weston and a Churchill? Hmm . . .
Actually, I would guess that Jane Austen, having this option open to her, preferred not to have two characters named Mr. Bennet. So there you have it. Sleep well, Miss Susan!