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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Jane’s Lawyers & Equitable Claims

In Austen L and Janeites, the ever-fertile mind of Diane Reynolds brought the following very interesting question: "...I do find it odd that only one of the sisters is singled out as having brought money to the marriage, though I understand the point is that it should not have bought her so advantageous a match."

I responded as follows:

There's a big but subtle clue in the opening paragraph that doesn't get noticed:

"All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it."

Ever notice that there's at least one lawyer in the mix in _every_ one of the six novels? If you don't believe me, search the word "lawyer" in each of the novels....

Lawyers have speaking parts, however, in only two of the novels---_Emma_ (of course, John Knightley, one of the second tier of major characters) and Persuasion (the very discreetly sheep-herding Mr. Shepherd).

But we all know that the best lawyers work behind the scenes, and so I would suggest to you that Uncle Ward, the lawyer, is as much involved, behind the scenes, in the "brokerage" of the marriage of Maria Ward to Sir Thomas Bertram, as Mr. Shepherd was involved, behind the scenes, in bringing the Crofts to lease Kellynch Hall. I smell the hand of a lawyer in both. It tells me that Jane Austen had some real experience of lawyers in the world, she seems to deeply understand how things were arranged and
then orchestrated for public consumption.

To which I later added the following additional comments:
I had some vague recollection of having once dealt with that sentence about Uncle Ward the Lawyer, and sure enough, back in the summer of 2006, I had written the following:

"I wonder, for example, about the Ward family history. Were these girls fatherless? Even orphans? Was it was Miss Ward (shades of Lucy Steele), who, in her can-do way (which perhaps she derived from her uncle the lawyer?), initially managed to gain entree to the Bertram family? Was it Miss Ward who somehow made up for the $3,000 pound deficit in "the equitable claim" of Maria Ward to the match with Sir Thomas? Was it Miss Ward who carefully laid all the groundwork, only to see her prize snatched out from under her at the last minute by her prettier younger sister? Had she done any of these things, she would then have been especially bitter, because she felt that Maria STOLE Sir Thomas out from under her! That same theme of sisterly romantic rivalry of course will arise shortly in the story with Maria and Julia, a thread in which Mrs. Norris will take particular interest.

And, in previous discussions, I believe that the suggestion has been made that in many ways Mrs. Norris was the REAL mistress of Mansfield Park. But I wonder if it was always that way? As we first encounter Lady Bertram, in middle age, she is already a lump who does nothing. But one wonders if she was always that way, or if, over the course of two decades, Mrs. Norris has done all she could to create conditions under which her sister's natural indolence would be subtly directed toward total sloth? All designed to attain for herself the role that was "stolen" from her long ago."

I've been thinking some more about Jane Austen's subtly legalistic hinting, and have focused on Maria Ward's 7,000 pounds being not quite enough to constitute an "equitable claim" on a match with the baronet Sir Thomas Bertram.

I decided to search the word "equitable" and its variants in MP, and look at what I found only a few chapters later, in Chapter 5:

"[Mary Crawford's] brother [Henry] was not handsome: no, when they first saw him he was absolutely plain, black and plain; but still he was the gentleman, with a pleasing address. The second meeting proved him not so very plain: he was plain, to be sure, but then he had so much countenance, and his teeth were so good, and he was so well made, that one soon forgot he was plain; and after a third interview, after dining in company with him at the Parsonage, he was no longer allowed to be called so by anybody. He was, in fact, the most agreeable young man the sisters had ever known, and they were equally delighted with him. Miss Bertram’s engagement made him in _equity_ the _property_ of Julia, of which Julia was fully aware; and before he had been at Mansfield a week, she was quite ready to be fallen in love with."

Mansfield Park really is the Austen novel with the most jarring juxtapositions of the language of love and the language of property--that last sentence contains an explosive mixture of both, with a health dollop of legalism to make it even more cynical.

So we see that in both generations, the legal vocabulary of equity is explicitly used to describe the underpinnings of a marital match. For those among you who are not lawyers, we lawyers learn in the first week of law school that there are two great branches of law--the law, which goes by what is written, and equity, which is ancient counterbalance to the harsh injustice that can sometimes arise from strict enforcement of the letter of the law. So for JA to use the words "equitable right" re the match of the father and mother, and then the word "equity" re the flirtations of their two daughters contesting for the same "asset", i.e., Henry Crawford, I am assuming JA knew what was equity vs what was law, and so she is hinting that there is some sort of redress for injury that has been crafted in order to mitigate that injury.

Which only adds to the mystery of what equitable considerations were on the table that led to the match of Sir Thomas Bertram with Maria Ward!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. There is one other usage of the word "equity" in all of JA's novels, and it is also in an introductory chapter, Chapter 2 of Persuasion,when we read:

"They [the Elliots] must retrench; that did not admit of a doubt. But [Lady Russell] was very anxious to have it done with the least possible pain to him and Elizabeth. She drew up plans of economy, she made exact calculations, and she did what nobody else thought of doing: she consulted Anne, who never seemed considered by the others as having any interest in the question. She consulted, and in a degree was influenced by her, in marking out the scheme of retrenchment which was at last submitted to Sir Walter. Every emendation of Anne's had been on the side of honesty against importance. She wanted more vigorous measures, a more complete reformation, a quicker release from debt, a much higher tone of indifference for every thing but justice and _equity_."

What a wonderfully weird turn of phrase at the end there---Lady Russell's impassioned campaign for the Elliots to retrench in the most dramatic way possible is described, which is then elevated to a rhetorical climax, like the closing argument in a court case, which is oddly deflated by a strange double oxymoronic clash of "higher tone of indifference" and "for everything but". Had JA wished merely to be straightforward, she'd have written that Lady Russell wanted a sharp focus on justice and equity. But she's obviously been hanging around Mr. Shepherd a little too much, and can't seem to stop speaking in doubletalk!

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