The Heroes in Jane Austen's Novels
Why is it so hard to like Edmund Bertram? Among Jane Austen's male heroes, he has always been my least favorite. As different as the men are in each of her other novels, they all share one common trait: they are heroic in their own way.
So, what does it mean to be a hero? What is Edmund Bertram lacking? In Jane Austen's novels, the heroes are each invariably placed in a challenging situation that tests their character. They each make the choice to do what is right, rather than what would be easy.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy could easily turn a blind eye to Lydia Bennet's scandal. In fact, Elizabeth expects him to and doesn't even really blame him. But, because he feels partly responsible for what happened to Lydia, he goes out of his way to make it right.
In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Anne's fortunes have been reversed when they meet again. Despite everything she's put him through, he still comes to treat her with kindness and gentleness. He is able to overcome his pain and resentment and fall in love with Anne all over again. (An act of understanding and forgiveness also made by the heroic farmer Robert Martin in Emma).
In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars does not rescind his offer to marry Lucy, even after he realizes he no longer loves her. Despite what this will mean for his own happiness as well as Elinor's, he refuses to break his promise and is disinherited.
In Northanger Abbey, Mr. Tilney probably also gets disinherited for marrying Catherine.
In Emma, Frank Churchill is on the point of being tested in this way, but we never find out what he would have chosen because his aunt conveniently dies. Mr. Elton's weak character is cemented when he refuses to dance with poor Harriet Smith. Maybe he feels awkward that she had a crush on him, or maybe he feels like he is too superior to dance with her. Either way, it doesn't matter what his reasons were. Mr. Knightley proves to be the true hero when he asks her to dance, even though we know he does not like dancing. Mr. Knightley is again tested at the very end of the book (and passes with flying colors) when he chooses to take the unconventional step of moving into Mr. Woodhouse's home rather than taking Emma away from Hartfield.
In Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram fails his test. He is completely taken in by Mary Crawford and ignores how thoroughly incompatible they are. Fanny is forced to watch and wait for him to realize his mistake (strangely, similarly to Mr. Knightley, who watched Emma navigate her feelings for the undeserving Frank Churchill).
So, who is the hero in this book? I would argue that Fanny Price is actually the only hero. Henry Crawford's proposal traps her in a miserable situation. She cannot agree to marry him because she is completely in love with Edmund, and she is smart enough to know Henry doesn't really love her (even if he hasn't realized that yet). Meanwhile, everyone she knows is pressuring her to accept, including Edmund. Fanny risks the anger of Sir Thomas (to whom she owes everything) to do what she feels is right.
I feel like her decision to reject Henry Crawford is even more difficult than Elizabeth rejecting Mr. Collins. Everyone seems to understand that Mr. Collins is ridiculous, and Mr. Bennet is quick to back Elizabeth up. Meanwhile, Henry Crawford is rich, charming, and well-liked by everyone at Mansfield Park. Fanny trusts her instincts and makes the difficult decision, which turns out to be the right one.
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The Entail on Thrushcross Grange
So I have just watched this really good informative video on entails on British estates in the 19th century. I didn’t previously know about the “Tenant for Life” - “Real Inheritor” distinction, I have thought that once established the entail on the estate went on forever and couldn’t be broken. But apparently not. This new knowledge made me understand Heathcliff’s plan to get Thrushcross Grange better.
“A great addition, in my eyes, was his being left without an heir. I bemoaned that, as I gazed on the feeble orphan; and I mentally abused old Linton for (what was only natural partiality) the securing his estate to his own daughter, instead of his son’s.”
(Chapter 16, Wuthering Heights)
Here we pretty much learn that Mr. Linton, Edgar’s father, was responsible for signing the current entail on Thrushcross Grange. He signed it so that Isabella and her son took precedence over Edgar’s daughter. As the above video says, the next unborn son on the inheriting line at the moment of entail’s signing is the Real Inheritor who can do whatever he wants with the estate (sell it, bequeath it to anyone they want etc). Thus Linton is the Real Inheritor of Thrushcross Grange and he will be entitled to do whatever he wants with it once he turns 21. Heathcliff knows this:
“Yes, Nell,’ he added, when they had departed, ‘my son is prospective owner of your place, and I should not wish him to die till I was certain of being his successor.”
(Chapter 20, Wuthering Heights)
If Linton lives till 21 years of age and until after Edgar dies, Heathcliff can easily manipulate him into bequeathing the estate to himself.
“‘My design is as honest as possible. I’ll inform you of its whole scope,’ he said. ‘That the two cousins may fall in love, and get married. I’m acting generously to your master: his young chit has no expectations, and should she second my wishes she’ll be provided for at once as joint successor with Linton.’
‘If Linton died,’ I answered, ‘and his life is quite uncertain, Catherine would be the heir.’
‘No, she would not,’ he said. ‘There is no clause in the will to secure it so: his property would go to me; but, to prevent disputes, I desire their union, and am resolved to bring it about.’”
(Chapter 21, Wuthering Heights)
Heathcliff desires Catherine and Linton to marry because he rightfully fears that Linton will die before 21 and before Edgar dies and that he won’t inherit the estate. By marrying him to Catherine he is securing that Catherine will be a Heathcliff under his authority and that her movable property will be in his grasp, so after Edgar and Linton’s deaths no one has the power to question him owning Thrushcross Grange. And this is exactly what ends up happening.
“Heathcliff went up once, to show her Linton’s will. He had bequeathed the whole of his, and what had been her, moveable property, to his father: the poor creature was threatened, or coaxed, into that act during her week’s absence, when his uncle died. The lands, being a minor, he could not meddle with. However, Mr. Heathcliff has claimed and kept them in his wife’s right and his also: I suppose legally; at any rate, Catherine, destitute of cash and friends, cannot disturb his possession.”
(Chapter 30, Wuthering Heights)
All of Catherine’s money became Linton’s after the marriage per the law and Linton left all of it to his father. He couldn’t bequeath Thrushcross Grange to his father since he couldn’t technically bequeath it before the age of 21 and he died around the age of 17. So Heathcliff can’t actually inherit it via his son’s will but Catherine doesn’t have any money, all of it is Heathcliff’s now, so she doesn’t have the resources to get a lawyer, and they live in the middle of nowhere anyway. So Heathcliff comes to own Thrushcross Grange.
I have been obsessing over this book for so many years and for the first time I have fully understood Heathcliff’s scheme to get Thrushcross Grange. The concept of the “Real Inheritor” was the puzzle piece I was missing.
If Linton hadn’t died before his 21st birthday (and if Heathcliff hadn’t kidnapped Cathy I guess) all of Heathcliff’s schemes throughout the novel would be perfectly legal.
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