Literature has often used as a central theme the right to property and position by virtue of birth. Kingship is one of Shakespeare’s primary topics. Who’s the rightful heir? Who’s a usurper? How far will someone go to be the king? These were burning questions in Shakespeare’s day, when society was hierarchical and class immutable. Also, the Queen was Shakespeare’s boss. The history plays were propaganda for the Tudors. But the tragedies too—King Lear, Hamlet—and even some of the comedies—address the issues of legitimacy and power.
Golden Age mysteries and those of the Fifties and Sixties still assumed that the reader would root for the rightful heir, or at least be against the usurper. Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar were organized around this premise. Both writers stacked the deck by making their usurpers bad guys who would kill to get what they wanted. But in each case, I find myself asking this: If the antagonist weren’t a homicidal villain, why would it be so bad for him to get the property?
While I still revel in the glory of Shakespeare’s language, I have become increasingly unsympathetic to this premise in his work in the past couple of decades. In the world I live in, I can’t work up any passion for someone’s right to power and privilege simply because of whom that person’s parents were. Is the defense of kingship a noble cause that moves anyone to passion nowadays?
Sure, some of Shakespeare’s themes are still universal. In King Lear, an aging man who hopes his daughters will care for him gives away his power prematurely and lives to regret it. We can relate because today we have to worry about whether our children will put us in a nursing home—and wonder if we can risk giving them power of attorney when we can’t handle our finances any more.
Traditional fantasy fiction is usually set in imaginary preindustrial kingdoms. (Urban fantasy, the genre that Charlaine Harris writes the Sookie Stackhouse books in, is another story.) Heroes and sympathetic characters risk their lives to protect the rightful heir, even when that heir is a baby. It’s easy for the author to stack the deck by making the usurper or conqueror willing to kill the baby to seize and retain power. Nobody likes a baby killer. But what has the baby done to deserve this extreme loyalty, besides being born to the right parents? Can you imagine what would happen to America if the majority decided that a baby was the rightful president? Yet a new generation of kids is being introduced to the notion of kingship through the movies, currently booming, based on fantasy novels.
Speaking of inheritance, remember that wonderful device, the tontine—where as multiple heirs died off, there was more for the survivors, until the last remaining heir scooped the pot? That fueled a lot of 20th century mystery plots. Even more revolve around who gets the money.But if the false claimant were not a villain, would we really be at all indignant if he managed to get the money? Especially if the false claimant has been on the ground, doing all the work? Isn’t it kind of unfair for the true claimant to show up out of the blue and scoop the pot? Brat Farrar actually is a false claimant, though he’s such a great fit for the family he originally plans to con that we want him to prevail, and of course he does.
In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Natural Death, an ailing old lady is killed in order for the villain to inherit before a new inheritance law becomes effective. Lord Peter Wimsey points out, “She didn’t want to die. She said so.” Now, that’s a right that I can get behind. But to me, the notion of inherited wealth and/or position is so far from my experience as to be downright bizarre. It’s a matter of class, I suppose—or classism. Why should Bunter be pressing the suits and Lord Peter wearing them? Simply because of their parentage. Lord Peter is intelligent and cultivated—but his brother, the Duke of Denver, is an idiot. And Bunter’s taste, especially in clothes, is better than Lord Peter’s.
Am I being cranky here? Do real-life people, except, perhaps, the very rich, even think about inheritance any more? Is it vanishing—or should it vanish—completely from mystery plots?