Tag Archives: inheritance

Cousin Henry

Cousin Henry (1879), a short novel which runs to just 280 pages in my edition, came late in Trollope’s career. Weak on characterisation, but strong on its depiction of guilt, it’s not the best place to start for anyone treading into Trollope territory for the first time.  Trollope’s sub-plots are absent and instead this is a very simple story in which Trollope examines the question of inheritance.

The elderly, childless Indefer Jones owns an estate, Llanfeare, in Wales. When the book opens, he’s close to death, and he’s spent the last few years of his life vacillating back and forth regarding the disposition of his estate. For many years now, his young niece, Isabel Broderick, has lived at Llanfeare. Isabel is the product of Indefer’s now deceased sister and an attorney who has since remarried and has several children by his second wife. Mr. Broderick’s new wife, Isabel’s stepmother, considers Isabel a burden and a threat to the family’s limited resources. During visits back home to her father, Isabel has been courted by the local curate, Mr. Owens–a man who has but 200 pounds a year to live on. Uncle Indefer cannot decide whether to leave his estate to Isabel or to a male relative, a young clerk, the Cousin Henry of the title, who lives in London.

cousin henryA dilemma arises. Indefer, when he’s in the mood to leave his estate to his devoted niece, Isabel, forbids her to marry Mr. Owens, “the grandson of an innkeeper,” so when he keeps changing his mind, Isabel, who still expects to be left a sizeable legacy from the estate if it goes to Cousin Henry, believes she will be free to marry Mr. Owens. Indefer agonizes about the decision:

Mr. Indefer Jones, who was now between seventy and eighty years old, was a gentleman who through his whole life had been disturbed by reflections, fears, and hopes as to the family property on which he had been born, on which he had always lived, in possession of which he would certainly die, and as to the future disposition of which it was his lot in life to be altogether responsible. It had been entailed upon him before his birth in his grandfather’s time, when his father was about to be married. But the entail had not been carried on. There had been no time in which this Indefer Jones had been about to be married, and the former old man having been given to extravagance, and been generally in want of money, had felt it more comfortable to be without an entail. His son had occasionally been induced to join with him in raising money. Thus not only since he had himself owned the estate, but before his father’s death, there had been forced upon him reflections as to the destination of Llanfeare.

Indefer, at one point had a younger brother named Henry, who “disgraced the family.” He ran off with a married woman and spent too much time at “race courses and billiard-rooms.” While Indefer strongly disapproved of his brother’s lifestyle, he acted as a benefactor for his wastrel brother’s son, the Cousin Henry of the title. Indefer even paid for his nephew to attend Oxford, but he was sent from there in disgrace. The young man is seen to be “sly” and “given to lying,” and is considered a great disappointment. Shortly after the book opens Cousin Henry is summoned to Llanfeare and this releases Isabel to visit her family. Indefer still agonizing about the disposition of the estate, thinks that Isabel ‘deserves’ it  but believes that the estate should go to a “Jones.” The perfect solution, as far as he is concerned, would be if Isabel agreed to marry her cousin, but she refuses to do so.

Uncle Indefer dies, and the last will, drawn up by the very sagacious lawyer, Mr. Apgood indicates that Cousin Henry is the heir. Isabel is supposed to inherit 4000 pounds, but there’s no 4,000 pounds to give. This leaves Isabel penniless and Cousin Henry the new owner of a large estate. But is there another will? Did Uncle Indefer, famous for his will changes, dictate another will prior to his death? Two local farmers swear this is so and that Isabel is the rightful owner. Where, then, is the last will?

One of the problems with the story is that Cousin Henry is seen by everyone in the novel as weak and despicable.  All the servants at Llanfeare and the locals think that Isabel, a young woman  they know well, should have inherited the estate, and the fact that Cousin Henry is the heir is seen as grossly unfair. For his part, Cousin Henry thinks he’s rather hard done by, and he has a point. His uncle summoned him from London–it wasn’t as though Henry weaseled his way into the house on false pretenses. If anyone needs to share some blame here, it’s Indefer Jones for not being able to make up his friggin’ mind. Cousin Henry, quite frankly, has my sympathy. The estate has been dangled in front of his nose for years. Yes, he’s a vacuous young man, but he was promised the house repeatedly, and now Master of Llanfeare he’s treated badly by the servants, who, in some sort of mini-rebellion, all give notice and depart–with the exception of the housekeeper who serves him very poor meals.

Isabel is not an appealing heroine. She says she thinks that the house should go to Cousin Henry, but then when the chips are down, it’s clear that she’s bitter about it (not that I blame her). She rather hypocritically considers that she’s too much of a “lady” to appear to care about the inheritance, and so she refuses to join in the hue and cry when the house is searched for the missing will. And then there’s her relationship with Mr. Owens–a very flat character who doesn’t leave much of an impression. Isabel proudly refuses to take that 4,000 pounds in payments from her cousin. So even though she didn’t become the heiress of Llanfeare, she still can’t marry Mr. Owen as he’s too poor to support a family. Isabel’s stepmother wants to shake some sense into Isabel and I did too.

The best part of the book is Trollope’s understanding of Cousin Henry’s thought processes : he has the justification, the opportunity, and the need to seize the moment, but he isn’t a bad man, and so he believes that passivity still leaves some room for the moral high ground. I loved the descriptions of Henry’s inner moral arguments as he goes back and forth, trying to decide if he should do the ‘right thing,’ and then arguing with himself about what that ‘right thing’ might be.

 While the main characters are weakly drawn, there’s a peculiar aspect to this book–I wondered if Trollope considered making it longer at some point. A court case for legal action against the local newspaper which has published numerous anti-Cousin Henry articles is in the works and the formidable Mr. Cheekey (otherwise known as Supercilious Jack) is mentioned and discussed in tones of fear and awe by several of the characters. It is arranged that during the trial Henry will be brought “under Mr Cheekey’s thumbscrews” in order for the truth to be discovered. The legendary Mr. Cheekey, however, never appears and we are left only with his awesome reputation for wringing the truth from his victims in court. Mr. Cheekey, a character who is only talked about in Cousin Henry remains firmly established in the mind of this reader. Seems like a bit of a waste of a wonderful character.

Trollope seems to be playing with the roles here of the good vs the bad characters. Traditionally Isabel would be considered the heroine, but she’s hard to like, and poor Cousin Henry would be the villain, yet here Trollope clearly intends Henry to be a sympathetic character– in fact he even addresses this victimization of Henry towards the end of the novel. Perhaps that’s why Trollope treats these two with generosity–opting for the positive outcome. Trollope also considered the question of inheritance in the excellent novel: The Belton Estate.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Trollope, Anthony

The Gate by Natsume Soseki

“He happened to glance up beyond the eaves and noticed the bamboo leaves gathered densely atop the bamboo stalks, like the stubble on a monk’s close-cropped head. As the leaves luxuriated in the autumn sunlight they drooped down heavily in silent clusters, not a single one stirring.”

When Tony announced Japanese Literature reading month, January in Japan, I decided to join in. I think I’ve read one Japanese novel in my lifetime, which, when I thought about it started to feel pathetic. So now I’ve read two. And even though that now with one move I’ve doubled my Japanese reading bank, somehow it doesn’t feel as though I’ve made much of a leap. My unfamiliarity with Japanese literature came back to haunt me on just about every page of my chosen book, The Gate by Natsume Soseki: the history, the customs, the terms, but one thing was constant. Yes, the universality of bad human behavior. Hey, I’ve read Balzac; I know when people are being bad.

the gateThe Gate written by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is a very simple story, and it’s beautifully written with a very calm style that matches the novel’s content. Published in 1910, The Gate is the story of Sosuke and his wife Oyone, a Tokyo couple who live in modest circumstances. Sosuke and Oyone are childless, and we’re not far into the novel when we learn that Sosuke must assume care of his younger brother, Koroku. While a great deal of the novel is spent on the day-to-day routines of life, underneath the calm conversations, there’s a matter of contention between Sosuke and his aunt. Sosuke’s father died leaving a house, his possessions, and some antiques. Since Sosuke was not living in Tokyo at the time, he turned over all financial matters to his uncle–a man known for his financial fecklessness….

The very helpful introduction from Pico Iyer goes a long way in explaining Japanese customs. For example, “the individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away.” It’s all about “conflict avoidance,” and we see that repeatedly in the novel. With my western sensibility, I’ll admit to a certain frustration to this approach. I couldn’t understand why on earth, anyone in their right mind would turn over any financial responsibilities to an uncle who has a history of business disasters, and then I also felt frustration about Sosuke’s failure to confront his relatives about his remaining inheritance. I kept hoping that Sosuke would go over to his aunt and uncle’s house and kick some bottoms But Sosuke is a study in avoidance, and apparently his skill at adroitly finding excuses not to confront his relatives even annoys his brother:

Koroku was privately of the opinion that all this dithering stemmed from an inborn flaw in his brother’s character.

Poor Koruku. He depends on the inheritance if he wants to attend university. So with that quote in mind, while I know that Japanese life is all about “conflict avoidance” it would seem that Sosuke has taken this to  whole new level: subject avoidance.

The issue of a missing or misspent inheritance is not the only incident that troubles the tranquility of Sosuke and Oyone’s life. There’s also a robbery committed against their landlord–a remote figure at first who turns out to be a very colourful character, an antique screen that may or may not be valuable, and there’s also an ex-husband who may awkwardly reappear. But all of these issues are mere ripples on the surface of life–no drama, no hysteria, no arguments or fights, and instead the emphasis is on the daily routine, trips to the bathhouse  accompanied by Sunday liberation. I loved these scenes of Tokyo life that show Sosuke spends his Sundays as he tries to pack in so much into just a few precious hours of freedom:

Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work–the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “nonaka-san, over here, please….”

We see the sights and colours of the city through Sosuke’s eyes, and there’s a sense of wonderment marred by the realities of economics and a rather pleasant lack of materialism:

That time in his life when he could not pass a bookstore without wanting to go in, and once inside to buy something, now belonged to the distant past. True, one English-language volume in the center of the window with a particularly fine binding and entitles History of Gambling fairly leaped out at him with its disctinctiveness, but that was all. Smiling to himself, he hurried across the street, where he stopped for a second time, to peek inside a watchmaker’s. On display were numerous gold watches, watch chains, and the like, which again he regarded as so many pretty-coloured, well-formed objects without the slightest desire to make any purchase. Nevertheless, he examined all the price tags dangling there from silk threads, comparing this item and that, and came away surprised at how cheap the gold watches were.

The introduction makes the point that this author’s protagonists are the “masters of doing nothing at all. They abhor action and decision as scrupulously as Bartleby the Scrivener.” This is definitely true of Sosuke–a man who finds that he may have to face a past that he’s studiously avoided. Translated by William F Sibley.

Review copy

 Finally a question for readers and Tony: can anyone recommend any Japanese CRIME novels?

19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Soseki Natsume

Balzac nailed it.

“I have learned so much practicing my profession! I have seen a father die in a garret without a sou or a stitch of clothing, abandoned by two daughters to whom he’d given 40,000 pounds income! I have seen wills burned. I have seen mothers rob their children; husbands steal from their wives; wives use love to kill their husbands or drive them mad–in order to live in peace with a lover. I have seen women teach their legitimate children tastes that will surely be the death of them, while favouring some love child. I cannot tell you everything I have seen because I have seen crimes that justice is powerless to rectify. In the end, none of the horrors that novelists believe they’ve invented can compare to the truth. You’ll soon become acquainted with such charming things yourself; as for me, I am moving to the country with my wife. I am sick of Paris.”

This is a speech made by the lawyer Derville to his clerk Godeschal at the very end of Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert. In the first speech, taken from the book, those familiar with Balzac can identity some of the characters Derville refers to. There’s a similar speech in the film version, but it takes place much earlier in the film, and in this scene Derville (Fabrice Luchini) speaks to Chabert (Gerard Depardieu).

“Lawyers see worse things than writers can invent. I’ve seen wills burned, mothers despoil their lawful children on behalf of those bred in adultery, wives use their husbands’ love to murder them or drive them mad so as to live with their lovers. I’ve seen ugly quarrels over still-warm corpses. I have seen crimes, Sir, that human justice is powerless to punish. Our offices are sewers that no one can clean.”

The speech is altered but we get the point: Derville, in his professional capacity as a lawyer, has witnessed some horrendous acts of human behaviour.

Balzac’s novella is the story of a man who arrives in Paris claiming to be Colonel Chabert–one of Napoleon’s trusted soldiers who fell at the battle of Eylau. It’s been years since the battle, and the man who claims to be Chabert argues that due to his injuries he was unable to return earlier. Now back in Paris to claim his estate, he finds that his wife, a former prostitute, has married Count Ferraud, a Restoration society social climber. Since he can’t get his wife back, Chabert wants the return of his millions accumulated during Napoleon’s reign, but his wife is loath to give up a penny–plus to acknowledge Chabert’s claim will render the children she has with Count Ferraud bastards, the issue of a polygamous marriage. And this is where the lawyer Derville comes in…

I saw the film in 1994, and it remains one of my favourite films of all time–the acting, the scenery, the story are all incredible, but there’s something about the quote from Balzac’s novel (and the speech in the film version) that sticks with me. A day doesn’t go by without recalling these 2 scenes–one literary and the other cinematic. 1994 was some time ago–almost 20 years, and in this passage of time, I’ve seen some of the things Derville/Balzac describes.  I’ve known wills to be destroyed and the frantic post death looting of estates. I’ve seen wives longing for their diseased husbands to die, I’ve seen husbands dump their dying wives, I’ve seen husbands stealing from their wives, children stealing from their ancient parents, and I’ve seen people driven mad by their spouses. Ok, no garrets and the illegitimate thing doesn’t translate well to today’s world, but bottom line, Balzac nailed the “sewers” of human behaviour. Put money in the equation, and morality goes out the window.

And this brings me to Derville. Why does Derville decide to champion Chabert’s cause? Is this just a whimsical decision? I don’t think so. When Derville meets Chabert, he has just won “300 francs at cards,” and he tells Chabert “I can certainly use half of that to make a man happy.” He gives Chabert a daily allowance of 100 sous a day while he investigates the legitimacy of Chabert’s claim. Once Derville establishes the facts, he contacts Colonel Chabert’s wife who is now the Countess Ferraud, and the games begin….

Derville seems partly motivated by altruism and partly by curiosity. Does he want “justice“–whatever that is in this complex case to prevail? As he tells his clerk:

We see the same ill feelings repeated again and again, never corrected. Our offices are gutters that cannot be cleansed.

Himadri over at The Argumentative Old Git recently wrote a blog post about a passage from literature that he holds dear, and he suggested that others do the same. This is my contribution. Perhaps my choice isn’t so contemplative or as beautiful as Himadri’s passage from Anna Karenina, but my choice puts my life in perspective. I’m often told that I’m cynical, but then I think of Derville–one of my literary heroes and silently shrug. No wonder I admire Balzac’s work.

28 Comments

Filed under Balzac, Blogging, Fiction

Gobseck by Balzac

“I like to leave mud on a rich man’s carpet; it is not petty spite; I like to make them feel a touch of the claws of necessity.”

The lawyer Derville is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and so I was delighted to find him again in the story Gobseck. It’s the winter of 1829-1830, and the action takes place in the salon of the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu. The evening’s entertainment is over, and most of the guests have left–with the exception of the Vicomtesse’s brother and an old trusted friend of the family who turns out to be Derville. The Vicomtesse takes the opportunity to lecture her 17-year-old daughter Camille about her improper behaviour towards the Comte de Restaud. Apparently the Comte carries considerable baggage–namely his mother:

A mother who wasted millions of francs; a woman of no birth, a Mlle Goriot; people talked a great deal about her at one time. She behaved so badly to her own father, that she certainly does not deserve to have so good a son.

Ok, so the objections to the Comte are largely his mother, and the Vicomtesse adds:

So long as his mother lives, any family would take alarm at the idea of intrusting a daughter’s fortune and future to young Restaud.

I’ve read Old Goriot, so I knew just what the Vicomtesse was talking about, and at this point Derville, who finishes his hand of cards, interjects with a story from his youth. And what an incredible story this is–one that shows Balzac’s amazing powers of perception, and here he’s at his supreme best as he dissects the nature of greed and various other human vices. The story (which racks in at about 154 pages) gives us a dash of Derville’s early career, a man who according to Balzac “had not an attorney’s soul.” Derville is a successful man who’s trusted by some of France’s most prominent families, but he’s not driven by ambition–there’s some nebulous design to his actions. Can it be that he’s interested in gaining some sort of justice for those wronged in a world in which the unjust, corrupt and greedy prosper so well? Does Derville’s intelligence demand at least some sort of fascination for those he represents? Both of these elements–fascination and a sense of justice–seem to be in play when he represents Colonel Chabert.

Derville takes his story back in time to when he was a 25-year-old student lodging in a dreadful boarding house in the Rue de Gres. One of Derville’s fellow lodgers is Gobseck–a notorious money lender:

His age was a problem; it was hard to say whether he’d grown old before his time, or whether by economy of youth he had saved enough to last him his life.

His room and everything in it, from the green baize of the bureau to the strip of the carpet by the bed, was as clean and threadbare as the chilly sanctuary of some elderly spinster who spends her days rubbing her furniture. In winter time, the live brands of the fire smouldered all day in his grate. He went through his day, from his uprising to the evening coughing-fit, with the regularity of a pendulum, and in some sort was a clockwork man, wound up by a night’s slumber. Touch a wood-louse on an excursion across your sheet of paper, and this creature shams death; and in something the same way my acquaintance would stop short in the middle of a sentence, while a cart went by, to save the strain to his voice. …

His life flowed soundless  as the sands of an hour-glass. His victims sometimes flew into a rage and made a great deal of noise, followed by a great silence; so is it in a kitchen after a fowl’s neck has been wrung.

A miserable and appropriate image indeed. Derville is clearly fascinated by Gobseck, and over the years, an unlikely relationship slowly develops between the two men, and strangely this relationship grants Derville an education in the deviousness of human nature. Here’s Gobseck to the young Derville:

You have all sorts of beliefs, while I have no beliefs at all. Keep your illusions–if you can. Now I will show you life with the discount taken off. Go wherever you like, or stay at home by the fireside with your wife, there always comes a time when you settle down in a certain groove, the groove is your preference; and then happiness consists in the exercise of your faculties by applying them to realities.

According to Gobseck there is only “one concrete reality” in the world, and yes, it’s GOLD which he says “represents every form of human power.” Living next to Gobseck over the course of several years, Derville sees many people from all walks of life fall into the moneylender’s dreadful and pitiless power. There are some people who seek money from Gobseck to assuage the vices of others, but there are also members of the ‘finest’ families in France who come to Gobseck’s door as a result of a range of secret behaviours. Derville sees it all, and amasses experience through witnessing the constant, unceasing caravan of the desperate who seek money from the hands of Gobseck–the moneylender of last resort.

One of the things that amuses Gobseck the most is the massive, constant upkeep of the wealthy. Here’s Gobseck arriving at the home of a certain Countess de Restaud to collect his money:

A painter would have paid money to stay a while to see that scene that I saw. Under the luxurious hanging draperies, the pillow crushed into the depths of an eider-down quilt, its lace border standing out in contrast against the background of blue silk, bore a vague impress that kindled the imagination. A pair of satin slippers gleamed from the great bear-skin rug spread by the carved mahogany lions at the bed-foot, where she had flung them off in her weariness after the ball. A crumpled gown hung over a chair, the sleeves touching the floor;  stockings which a breath would have blown away were twisted about the leg of an easy-chair; while ribbon garters straggled over a settee. A fan of price, half unfolded, glittered on the chimney piece. Drawers stood open; flowers, diamonds, gloves, a bouquet, a girdle were littered about. The room was full of vague sweet perfume. And–beneath all the luxury and disorder, beauty and incongruity, I saw Misery crouching in wait for her or for her adorer, Misery rearing its head, for the Countess had begun to feel the edge of those fangs. Her tired face was an epitome of the room strewn with relics of past festivals. The scattered gewgaws, pitiable this morning when gathered together and coherent, had turned heads the night before.

So the signs of vice are slowly demolishing the beauty of the young Countess, and Derville goes on to tell the tale of just how he becomes involved with Gobseck and his business dealings with the Restauds. Gobseck predicts the worst for the Comte and the Comtesse de Restaud, and Derville sees Gobseck’s worst predictions come true.

Anyway, an incredibly powerful novella–one that immediately shoots to my favourite Balzac list. Not only does Gobseck give us another glimpse of the intelligent and fascinatingly elusive Derville, but here we also see just how Gobseck–one of literature’s greatest creations operates and exists parasitically on the vices of others. Yet we should remember that Gobseck only feeds the vices that already exist–he doesn’t own a gambling house, he doesn’t encourage spending or the keeping of mistresses (or gigolos), he just feeds the vices of others until those vices consume those who indulge weaknesses.

Pay the price of your luxury, pay for your name, pay for your ease, pay for the monopoly which you enjoy! The rich have invented judges and courts of law to secure their goods, and the guillotine–that candle in which so many lie in silk, under silken coverlets, there is remorse, and grinding of teeth beneath a smile, and those fantastical lions’ jaws are gaping to set their fangs in your heart.

Translated by Ellen Marriage

(The photo depicts Fabrice Luchini as Derville in the film Colonel Chabert)

17 Comments

Filed under Balzac, Fiction