Inheritance as the Key to All Mythologies: George Eliot and Legal Practice

By Milton, Paul | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1995 | Go to article overview

Inheritance as the Key to All Mythologies: George Eliot and Legal Practice


Milton, Paul, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Current cultural historians often seek to uncover oppositional views - frequently deriving from differences in gender, race or class - which are hidden beneath the smooth surface of consensus. Far from being a homogeneous entity, culture is regarded as the site of continuous struggle, negotiation and compromise. One period that lends itself well to such investigations is the 19th century. In Uneven Developments, for example, Mary Poovey explores legal history, medical history and literature to create a complex view of the relationship between gender and ideology in this period. Similarly, in Family Fortunes, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall show how the social history of the early 19th century reveals contexts traditionally ignored by mainstream historians. Both of these studies draw attention to the need to include a consideration of the capacity of legal practices to produce culture and contain opposition.

Within 19th-century fiction itself, moreover, the social influence of law was a recurrent concern. The progress of social, political and legal reform throughout the century prompted interest in questions of property and law, questions that are often addressed in plots concerned with inheritance. Among novelists who addressed this issue, George Eliot consistently, though not exclusively, examined situations in which women are affected negatively by inheritances. Three of her later novels - Romola (1862-63), Felix Holt. The Radical (1866) and Middlemarch (1871-72) - present female characters who experience difficulties as a result of the transference of property through written wills.

My purpose in this essay is to explore Eliot's concern with the way a will confers identity on the heir through the transfer of wealth and property rights. To provide a context for Eliot's critiques, I will begin by examining the analysis of inheritance practices by 19th-century legal theorist Henry Maine. Then I will compare her treatment of inheritance in Romola and Felix Holt with the way the topic is addressed in novels by her male contemporaries, Anthony Trollope and Benjamin Disraeli. Finally, I will proceed to an extended reading of the inheritance narratives in Middlemarch in which Eliot's critique of testamentary practices receives its most detailed treatment. In Middlemarch, I will argue, Eliot criticizes the coercive nature of the concept of an underlying unity between the will's author and its heir that is implicit in the idea of inheritance. Eliot shows not only that the economic implications of inheritance erase a woman's identity as an individual, but also that the notions of sanctity and duty encoded in the will ensure a woman's metaphysical complicity in her own effacement.

Throughout the 19th century, there was debate about the means by which a man could dispose of his goods at death. Early attempts at reform resulted in the passage of the Inheritance Act of 1833 and the Wills Act of 1837; but these acts merely improved the mechanism by which the existing law operated and did not effect any substantial change (Simpson 275). More radical requests for reform called for the abolition of primogeniture, the right of the first-born legitimate son to inherit the entire estate, in favor of the partibility of the estate. Under this scheme, the testator, or author of the will, could divide the estate among a number of heirs.

A reason for the reluctance to abolish primogeniture may be found in the historical antecedents of 19th-century English law. Henry Maine's 1861 Ancient Law examined in detail the early history of testamentary succession, or the passage of property through wills, and traced the roots of many testamentary practices to Roman social expediency. Maine's work, which Eliot read during the writing of Middlemarch (Pratt & Neufeld 205), introduces a positivistic historical analysis of legal practices. His "crucial contribution was to give the old-established notion of patriarchal society a legal definition" (Kuper 101). …

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