Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen

by Rita Dashwood (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 274 Pages


«The author has undoubtedly carried out a thorough re-evaluation and interpretation of property ownership and its multiple manifestations.»
(Hazel Jones, The Jane Austen Society, August 2023)
«In this brilliant study of Jane Austen’s fiction, Rita J. Dashwood deftly illuminates the complexity of women’s relationships to nineteenth-century property, by considering not only houses and estates, but law, inheritance, management, interior spaces, and feelings. Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen, which breaks important new ground in Austen studies, will appeal to newcomers and seasoned readers alike.»
(Professor Devoney Looser, Professor of English, Arizona State University)
«Combining meticulous close reading with a thorough knowledge of contemporary debates, Rita Dashwood expertly demonstrates how Austen’s fictional characters forged affective connections with the properties they inherited, managed, lived in and imagined, often working around and against the legal system and its constraints. In so doing she both expands our understanding of 'ownership' in the period and provides compelling evidence for Austen as, in her brother’s words, 'the novelist of home'.»
(Professor Joe Bray, Professor of Language and Literature, The University of Sheffield)

Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen investigates the centrality of real property – the house and the estate – in Austen’s fictional works, and how it allows her to depict her characters establishing complex relationships to the spaces they inhabit. By offering an original reconceptualisation of «ownership» which includes legal as well as affective relationships towards property, this book particularly considers how the women in Austen’s novels establish feelings of ownership towards houses they are not legally entitled to own. As this book demonstrates, through her work, Austen offers more than just a criticism of the current property laws and the ways in which they affect women: she puts forward alternative ways for women to establish a sense of purpose for themselves and express their identities through the spaces they create and occupy, unreservedly legitimizing female ownership.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • CHAPTER 1: Inheriting
  • CHAPTER 2: Managing
  • CHAPTER 3: Living
  • CHAPTER 4: Imagining
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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In my very long list of people I’m grateful for, I would be remiss if I didn’t start by thanking the best author who has ever lived, Jane Austen, for teaching me that even when you are not at all in a humour for writing, you must write on until you are. Thanks to you, I now also have my own darling child.

I would like to thank my editor, Laurel Plapp, for being so encouraging and supportive of this book. My thanks also go out to Christina Lupton and David Francis Taylor for all the support they have offered me with this book, and for contributing to it with their valuable advice and expertise; to Tina, for first taking on this project and her guidance since; and to David, for all the conversations that became some of my favourite parts of this book. To my mentor, Professor Emma Mason, for her expertise and contagious cheerfulness, and for offering me support and advice when I needed it most. To Jennie Batchelor, for being so incredibly friendly as well as so inspiring at her job that I could never have had anyone else as my external examiner. To Hazel Jones, for introducing me to the Jane Austen Society, and for being a true fairy godmother to me ever since. Writing this book would not have nearly been as fun without my annual trips to Oxford for BSECS – which is fully deserving of its reputation of being the friendliest conference in the field – where I met the nicest and most brilliant group of people, particularly Corrina Readioff, a great friend and the best conference companion anyone can have. To my fantastic colleagues at the University of Roehampton, for being so incredibly welcoming and organising the most fun game nights ever. To Alison Waller, in particular, for encouraging my interest in young adult literature and for being an absolute beacon of light for me during our time together in the awesome Reading for Normal project. I’m so grateful to my colleagues and friends at Edge Hill University, particularly the EH19 gang: Laura Eastlake, thank you for being awesome and for always making everyone feel the same; Douglas Small, for being so kind, for the super fun coffee breaks, the infallible movie ←vii | viii→recommendations, and your appreciation for how amazing Alan Rickman is in Die Hard; Madeline Potter, for being the coolest, and also team Spike!; Bob Nicholson, for being the loveliest and always being there for me when I needed him; and to Catherine Quirk, for always being her funny, brilliant self. To Alyson Brown, for giving me such a lovely welcome into Edge Hill, and for making probation meetings fun. To Zayneb Allak, for being the best buddy a girl could have. To Victor Merriman, for being so kind and championing this book in such an amazing way that I really owe you a very nice drink of your choice. A special shout out goes, of course, to my chaotic good friend, Andy McInnes, who went from standing out as the nicest person at a conference back in 2017, all the way to becoming a friend and the absolute best partner in silliness as part of the coolest project ever, The Romantic Ridiculous. I can never give enough thanks to all my amazingly kind, fun and brilliant students at Warwick (for “Shakespeare and His Sister,” “English Literature and Feminisms,” “The European Novel,” “Crime Fiction” and “The Enlightenment”), the Transformations programme, the WEA (for “Women at Home”), and Edge Hill (for “Romanticism” and “Romantic Movements”). I’m so happy and lucky that I got to be a small part of your lives. Thank you for reminding me of why I do this and for liking my popular culture references.

I’m so grateful for the nine years I spent at the University of Warwick and for all the wonderful people I met during that time. To Kristin Hübner, for being the best friend a girl could ask for, as well as the most formidable, enthusiastic and kindest partner in adventure and Adventureland. It’s a pirate’s life for us. To Fiona Farnsworth, for being not just incredibly kind and brilliant, but also the most wonderful ray of sunshine anyone could have. Everyone should have a Fiona in their lives. To Chris Hunt, the Captain, and Alex Caton, for being wonderful friends to me while in Rootes residences, for all the fun, the gym sessions, and the best sourdough in the world. To everyone at the Institute of Advanced Study, for making the dreaded year-after-the-PhD not a scary but a fun and exciting time, particularly to Andrew Burchell and Nick Sillett, for being such wonderful, fun and kind people that they will never get rid of me now. To Betty Sands, for being all-around awesome and for hosting the best Halloween parties anyone has ever seen. To Tina Janssen, for being the loveliest and ←viii | ix→introducing me to Sinterklaas. To Nuala Clarke, for always being hilarious and great company, and for keeping me sane while in Rootes. To Jen Baker, for being an amazing friend and listener, and for always being there for me when I need you. To Charlotte Askew and Rob Grayston, for being the best cheerleaders and always just a click away. To Sheema Hossain, Jaz Lau and Esther Soh for being the most amazing friends I could have ever asked for as a 21-year-old arriving at a strange country for the first time, for being there for me back when this book was just an embryo, and unfailingly ever since. To Gill Othen: thank you for being an incredible academic, teacher and, most of all, friend, and for introducing me to so many new things, most importantly Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Spike!). I’m still bursting with gratefulness for the afternoon we spent together where Chapter 2 of this book was born. To Chris Cooijmans, Laura Cooijmans-Keizer and Tato for giving me the best welcome to Liverpool I could have had, and for always encouraging me to walk a little bit farther. To Daniella Medalla, for hosting me while I was in Brazil, for showing me the best time, and for becoming a lifelong friend. To the Rita family in California, for welcoming me with open arms, and for becoming as good as family to me.

Speaking of family: I’m so lucky to have as wonderful a family as I do. I have immeasurable gratitude for my gran Luísa, for her never-ending love and support, and for always making me the bright and kind protagonist of every story. To my granddad, Júlio, for always teaching me the importance of education. To Tita, who, like Austen, makes the list of one of the most amazing aunts in history. To my aunt Bécas, ditto; thank you for the long phone calls that always have me cracking up. To my uncle, Júlio, for all the goofing around. To my aunt Ana, for her quick wit. To my cousins: Sofia, for always being so kind and wise in her advice; Zé, for being the loveliest and always so easy-going; João, for being so incredibly sweet and always letting me hug him; Carlota, for being such a great pal to me since she was a little one; Tiago, for being so charming, hilarious, cheeky, and – I can’t help how happy that makes me – so similar to me in more ways than one. To my brother, Miguel, for being so effortlessly cool, for always rooting for and believing in me, for the long conversations and all our adventures – the past ones and the ones to come. As it’s my big sister’s privilege to embarrass you publicly, let me say that I love you beyond words and that I’m so ←ix | x→proud of the person you have become. You continue to be the best thing that has ever happened to me.

I dedicate this book, of course, to my parents, Luísa and Jorge, for their unflinching support, without which none of this could have ever been possible. To my mum, for being the best role model I could have ever asked for. And to my dad, for instilling creativity in me; if I write, it’s because of you. Thank you for always accepting me and loving me for who I am. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have you as my parents. Having been guided my entire life by the kindest, most intelligent and formidable people I know, I know I can’t go wrong. Thank you for incentivising me to follow my dreams, for making it possible for me to do so, and for being there for me every step of the way. I love you more than words can express, and, as Austen would put it, maybe if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. Obrigada por tudo.

←x | 1→


Anyone who has read Sense and Sensibility (1811) will remember Jane Austen’s description of how Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, are forced to leave their home at Norland Park and find a new place to live. My first encounters with this episode left me with feelings of pity for these women due to all they had lost and would never regain. Although the novel opens with the information that “The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex,” with the estate of Norland being “in the centre of their property,” (3) the branch of the family on which the novel focuses first arrive at the estate as visitors.1 The Dashwood family thus makes Norland Park their home for an unspecified number of years. Mr Dashwood, however, holds ownership of the property for one year only following the death of his uncle, after which it passes to his son, the three sisters being left with a mere one thousand pounds a year each in the will. “[Degraded] to the condition of visitors” in their own house, the Dashwood women are made to find a new place of residence, one that is more suited to their reduced circumstances (6). In the sixth chapter of the novel, Austen places considerable emphasis on the feelings of displacement these women experience when a few months after Mr Dashwood’s death they leave Norland Park forever: “Many were the tears shed by them in their last adieus to a place so much beloved” (21). Upon arriving at their new house, Austen writes again that they shed tears as they compare the cottage to the home they have left behind (22).

And yet, in the course of writing this book I have realised that the arrival at the cottage was not the straightforwardly disheartening and pitiful ←1 | 2→moment that I had believed it to be, but that there was scope for reading it as something other than an unadulterated representation of loss and displacement. Indeed, the Dashwood women’s initial feelings upon seeing the cottage may be described as disappointment, but these are rapidly succeeded by an expression of resistance to their dispossession: “In comparison to Norland, it was poor and small indeed! – but the tears which recollection called forth as they entered the house were soon dried away” (22). The subsequent impressions that the Dashwood women receive of the cottage are all favourable: the weather is good, so the cottage is seen at its best, the view from its windows is “pleasant” (22) and they are welcomed into the neighbourhood by their landlord, who brings them presents of game and fruit (24). Austen then describes their occupation and decoration of the space of the cottage by writing that “each of them was busy arranging their particular concerns, and endeavouring, by placing around them their books and their possessions, to form themselves a home” (23). This sentence, easily missed, is essential to our understanding of Austen’s portrayal of the complexity of women’s relationships to property. Here, Austen describes a personalised organisation of personal property within the space of the cottage, which she presents as an expression of identity and a way of claiming ownership over that space. “Form” implies the organisation, shaping and building of a space, and it characterises the Dashwood women as creators of spaces. “Themselves” is indicative of a personalised aspect of their occupation of the space, since the decorative choices they make can be seen as expressions of their identity. “Home” conveys the formation of an emotional attachment towards the new house, as well as a sense of permanence, something important to a group of women that has been so callously dispossessed. Finally, “arranging” and “placing around” denote an organisation of objects in space that, as the personal pronoun “their” indicates, is a personalised one, since it depends on the particular taste and ingenuity of the decorator. In describing their personalised decoration of the cottage, therefore, Austen portrays the Dashwood women expressing their identities, as the result of their efforts is the creation of a space that could not have been put together by anyone else.

More importantly, by occupying Barton cottage, Austen shows the Dashwood women not just leaving their own unique mark on the space ←2 | 3→but asserting a claim over it. Sense and Sensibility is perhaps Austen’s most realistic novel in terms of its representation of the narrow range of opportunities open for genteel women of no fortune. Yet, like all of Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility nevertheless shows how women may be able to find another way of being in the world after an experience of dispossession by establishing feelings of ownership towards a new house. Austen thus shows ownership over a space to be something that is independent of the law, since she attributes it to characters of unpropertied women, with no legal claim over the house in which they live. Austen’s real achievement in this chapter and in the novel in general is not to portray vividly the feelings of displacement a woman might feel when forced to leave her home – although she certainly accomplishes this – but to depict her female characters overcoming this displacement. Whilst shedding light on the repression women in this period face under a patriarchal system that overwhelmingly bars them from legal property ownership, Austen shows how creative and enabling relationships to property can originate not just despite the disenfranchisement experienced by women in the period, but because of it. As this book will demonstrate, Austen’s portrayal of women establishing their claim to a property in this way is an original and empowering aspect of her work that is yet to be fully recognised in its criticism.

Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen investigates the centrality of real property – the house and the estate – in Austen’s fictional landscapes, and the ways in which it allows Austen to show her characters establishing complex relationships to the spaces they inhabit. By offering an original reconceptualisation of “ownership” which includes legal as well as affective relationships towards property, this book particularly considers how the women in Austen’s novels establish feelings of ownership towards houses they are not legally entitled to own. Through the depiction of various kinds of ownership, Austen shows her female characters actively circumventing the limitations imposed on them by the patriarchal society in which they live. Austen’s novels consequently offer ways of thinking about property that would not be legitimised by the law for several decades after her death. Such a representation of women’s relationships to property is distinctly empowering, as it shows them challenging the constraints with which the law threatens to oppress them. By eluding the unfair restrictions ←3 | 4→the current property system imposes on them, these female characters are able to create a sense of ownership over the spaces they inhabit. Through her work, Austen therefore offers more than just a criticism of the current property laws and the ways in which they leave women in a precarious situation: she puts forward alternative ways for women to create a sense of purpose for themselves and express their identities through the spaces they create and occupy, and, in doing so, resist their dispossessed state.


X, 274
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
Jane Austen eighteenth-century literature nineteenth-century literature gender and property Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen Rita J. Dashwood
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. X, 274 pp.

Biographical notes

Rita Dashwood (Author)

Dr Rita J. Dashwood is a literary scholar and historian of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her research focuses on women, property and cultural heritage, and the Romantic period’s legacies in popular culture. She is a Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at Ghent University, where she is working on her third book, The Heiress: Women, Property and Economics, 1780-1900. She has received multiple awards throughout her career, including the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ President’s Prize for her research on Austen.


Title: Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen