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Fictions of Justice: Testamentary Intention and the (Il)legitimate Heir in Trollope's Ralph the Heir and Forster's Howards End Cathrine O. Frank University of New England IN 1766 WILLIAM BLACKSTONE wrote in volume II of his Commentaries "Of the Rights of Things" that the right to inherit actually predated the right to make a will. By confounding the individual's desire to direct the disposition of his goods (by submitting them to prescribed inheritance patterns), the law that had established the legal right to and protection of property in the first place was thus felt to infringe too closely upon individual autonomy. In response, the right of testation was introduced by which "the pleasure of the deceased" became the rule for succession through the document that, notes Blackstone, "we therefore emphatically stile [sic] his will."1 He further observes, however, that this new dispensation was so obstructed by other regulations that the effect was to emphasize the law's "pleasure" rather than the individual's volition . By restricting the type of people who may write wills, the type who may benefit under them, the type of bequest that could be made—in short, everything that goes into a will and might be said to constitute freedom of testation—the law made what was "emphatically stile [d]" the testator's will seem largely a rhetorical turn of phrase.2 This concept of an individual's rights in things was to become a central subject of both legal and literary writing of the nineteenth century. The Wills Act of 1837, for example, repealed all previous wills acts and made the legal document a specifically Victorian text. For James Traill Christie, commenting on the Act in 1857, its third section effected perhaps the greatest change precisely in the degree to which it "enlarge [ed] the power of the testator."3 Literary characters, too, ranging from John Harmon, Sr. to Mr. Scarborough invoked the idea laid out by J. S. Mill in 311 ELT 47 : 3 2004 Principles of Political Economy (1848): "The ownership of a thing cannot be looked upon as complete without the power of bestowing it, at death or during life, at the owner's pleasure: and all the reasons which recommend that private property should exist, recommend pro tanto, this extension of it."4 As Mr. Scarborough in Trollope's Mr. Scarborough's Family ( 1883) asserts, "If a man has a property he should be able to leave it as he pleases; or—else he doesn't have it."5 The novel's response to this legal contest can illuminate literature's ability to offer a potentially more satisfying world than the one created through legal discourse. At the very least, by importing the "real" legal document into its fictional world, the novel creates a competing view of the law and an opportunity for readers to engage it in its symbolic capacity as a narrative that shapes experience. Just as the testator's will is regulated by the governing legal conventions of the time, however, so too does the novel's representation of it shift in rough allegiance to aesthetic standards. In this sense, the novel's rhetorical usage of the last will and testament can provide an index of the movement from realism towards modernism. The number of novels that adopt the last will and testament , whether as minor plot point or central incident, is too great to receive a full accounting here. In this article, then, I turn briefly to Anthony Trollope's Ralph the Heir ( 1871) in order to illustrate a growing Victorian ambivalence towards empirical emphasis on the law before focusing more fully on E. M. Forster's Howards End (1910) as an Edwardian revision of the general legal negotiation between a testator's intention and the law circumscribing it. The more specific legal problem canvassed in these novels lies in the terms of this negotiation. By introducing the figure of the illegitimate child, both present two opposed, potential heirs whose legitimacy or eligibility as heirs is better determined by their stance towards property than by the legalities surrounding the circumstances of their birth or selection . In Ralph the Heir, the novel's focus...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 311-330
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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