Author of the Dido Kent mysteries
Book End – A Woman of Consequence
Warning: Book Ends contain spoilers so please don't look at the notes of a novel you are planning to read.
The entail which Edward Crockford seeks to avoid, is inspired by the entail which dogs the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice. The great importance of a son and the injustice of such a system which could leave even the daughters of well-to-do men penniless, were ideas which influenced the story of A Woman of Consequence.
When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I assumed that the longed for Bennet son would have rescued his sisters from poverty simply by inheriting the estate and giving them money. Then, I realised that, when he inherited, he would be as subject to the rules of the entail as his father had been – he would have to hand on the estate entire and would be no more able to provide for the five girls than Mr Bennet senior. This made me wonder a bit about the nature of entails, and about the exact meaning of Jane Austen's description of Mr Bennet's situation:
'When Mr Bennet first married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for.' (Pride and Prejudice Chapter 50)
I looked into the matter and found that, in the early nineteenth century, there existed an incredibly complicated legal process for 'cutting off' an entail. Once this process was completed it would allow the owner of the property to divide it as he pleased in his will; but for it to be carried out the present holder of the property and the heir must collaborate. Therefore, to rescue the girls of a family from poverty it would be necessary not only for a son to be born, but for the father to survive until the boy reached legal majority. (And, of course, for that son to agree to co-operate in reducing his own inheritance for the sake of his sisters.) So, because he dies before Silas comes of age, Edward Crockford's deception is only partially successful.
Lady Congreve's decision to abandon the life of 'Society' and live quietly in a country village, set me thinking about the contrast between rural simplicity and high society. It was a theme frequently explored by eighteenth and nineteenth century writers, who generally equated virtue with rural life and vice with towns. One such writer was William Cowper (1731-1800), particularly in his poem The Task. I reread this while I was writing A Woman of Consequence and when I look back now, I realise that several little quotations from it crept in, almost without my knowing. There is the line about seeing images in firelight, which Jane Austen refers to in Emma: 'myself creating what I saw'. The mirror in Madderstone's ballroom in which 'Goliath might have viewed his giant bulk' is an image of Cowpers. And the tea-cups in the Bath Assembly rooms which 'cheer but not inebriate' are also his.
Like Jane Austen's Catherine Morland, I have always found ruined abbeys wonderfully atmospheric. The ruins at Madderstone are influenced by a great many places I've visted: Tintern, Wells, Fountains - and Dryburgh in the Scottish borders, where these photographs were taken.
And finally – for any readers who, like me, want to know the source of a quote, here are the references for those little bits of Shakespeare which Dido can never place: Jealousy is described as 'a green-eyed monster' in Othello (Act III Scene 3). It is Hamlet who appears 'with his doublet all unbraced… Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other…' Hamlet (Act II Scene 1) And, 'Strange things I have in head that will to hand,' comes from Macbeth (Act III Scene 4)