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The Primogeniture Blues | History today


Portrait of the Musgrave Morris boy with John Armine Morris (born 1813), later Sir John Morris, 3rd Baronet of Clasemont left and George Byng Morris (born 1816) right, around 1830 (detail) © Bridgeman Pictures.

It is a generally accepted truth that a younger son who has no wealth must be unemployed, so Jane Austen may have written.

This book is a fascinating study of the impact of the British Primogenitur tradition on Regency society, which found that the eldest son inherited the legacy and often left his brothers to go backward. What did that mean in practice for younger sons with a distinguished and aristocratic background, whose chances of continuing to live in the style they were used to depend on their employment prospects?

In this humane and carefully researched book, rich in individual stories, Rory Muir examines the various career opportunities offered to gentlemen who weren't that many if they wanted to maintain the caste. The Church, selected by Jane Austens Edward Ferrars in Sense and sensitivity, was the most steady, but generally not viewed as a career for the most ambitious. A university degree and some degree of patronage at the beginning could become a springboard for an intellectual and literary distinction, as in the case of the undoubted Sydney Smith. But without luck or connections, a failed pastor could lose his rank.

The law was riskier and required more brains and wisdom, but the financial rewards at the top were far greater. In Austens EmmaKnightley's younger brother, a successful lawyer, is as much a workaholic today as any top-class quality control. Medicine did not quite have the social and professional status that we now associate with it: an aristocratic younger son could become a clergyman or a lawyer, but is unlikely to have been trained as a doctor, although the son of a clergyman would not have thought it possible among him. Banking and trade remained a little questionable since the money won was not as prestigious as landed property, but the gentlemen still entered the financial sector. Muir offers an insightful portrait of Jane Austen's banker brother Henry, who was ruined after the 1816 crash and then reinvented himself as a clergyman.

However, the navy and army were the most glamorous options for the young men themselves, especially during the Napoleonic Wars. The former required leaving the house at a very young age, around 12, although it wasn't just rum, sodomy, and whip, according to Muir, who measured the impact on children's mental health. Another option for the adventurous was India, but the number of victims was so high that one wonders why so many parents sent their sons there, especially after the heyday of the rich Nabobs was over.

One of the most surprising discoveries from Muir is the relative lack of resentment shown by younger sons. They tended to accept their lot as an eternal law of nature, even at a time when individualism and democratization increased. In fact, the younger sons Tudor and Stuart had raised more objections to the perceptible injustice of everything.

Families where the elders had inherited massive prestige and economic resources usually had a patronage dynamic (which could explain why younger sons kept their grudges at bay). Sibling rivalry showed its face rather than a younger brother outshone the heir in apparent contradiction to the natural order. Lord Mornington was not only the oldest, but also a golden boy, who was celebrated in school and university and later served as Governor General of India, Secretary of State and Lieutenant of Ireland. But when his younger brother Arthur overtook him internally, he was consumed by jealousy. Few had to endure being overtaken by such a talented sibling as the Duke of Wellington, but being the privileged firstborn wasn't particularly easy.

The extent of this privilege in economic terms is illustrated by the example of the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, who inherited over £ 16,000 a year in estate at the age of just 17. His five younger brothers and sisters each gave him a one-off payment of £ 2,000, which, if carefully invested, would have generated an annual income of around £ 100, much less than even the abstainer could stand if he were entitled to it would maintain on meekness. A gentleman's income from private funds averaged £ 700.

Muir offers a clear, well-researched chapter on money that analyzes income and cost of living. In a book that contributes so much, this may be his greatest contribution. It will be of great benefit to biographers and historians in the future.

My only disappointment – and I couldn't praise this beautifully written book – is that Muir doesn't have a chapter on marriage as a career option for men (it was almost the only career option for women). I would have loved to know more about the extent to which younger sons think about the prospect of inheriting an heir, and how this works in practice in people's real lives.

Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How younger sons found their way in Jane Austen's England
Rory Muir
Yale 384pp £ 25

Lucasta Miller is the author of L.E.L. The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Acclaimed “Female Byron” (Born in 2019).

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