Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Embezzlers, or Life Is a 19th-Century Novel

I try to lead a peaceful life in a post-apocalyptic world. Avoid the crowd, Seneca advises. And do not engage in combat over a will, says Gandhi.  Or wait, maybe that wasn't Gandhi.

As they say in comic books: "!@%!!!~*&A!!" 

The chaos began when the will arrived in the mail.  I thought it was junk mail. It did not resemble a legal document.  On the respectable side of our family, wills are written in crisp legal language, so there are no doubts as to who gets what. On the other side, all is chaotic.  To be honest, I avoid these "trashy" people and their mayhem.  Peace on earth, good will to men, but that does not mean one must visit!

The will commenced with the news of who would not inherit. I tsk-tsked: why had the lawyer allowed this?  In a sidebar, I was briefly mentioned as one of the imaginary heirs to a non-existent estate. I wish I were happy to be remembered, but it has been a source of exasperation and turmoil. The "fortune," as I well remembered, consisted of the relative's flashing hundred-dollar bills at Long John Silver's.  "You don't want a hundred-dollar bill, do you?" he asked often in public. I was most displeased and never answered. And now people are suing.  Unbelievable.


Why is my life patterned on 19th-century literature? In George Eliot's Middlemarch, which I first read at an age when the whole inheritance scene seemed fantastically unreal, relatives hover in the house of Mr. Featherstone, a rich man expected to die soon. And Mr. Featherstone is not without a horrible sense of humor:  he plays them. At one point he destroys the expectations of his supposed heir, Fred Vincy, by changing his will.  Then on his deathbed, Mr. Featherstone begs his attendant, Mary Garth, to burn the new will so Fred will inherit.  Mary refuses because it is not in her job description, and she thinks it might be taking illegal advantage of a dying man. (Now that woman has a keen legal mind.  I mean it.  She is my heroine.)  N.B. Fred's behavior is so bad - he nearly ruins Mr. Garth, Mary's father - that he and Mr. Featherstone deserve each other's poor judgment.  The difference:  Mr. Featherstone regrets; Fred has time to change his life.

In  Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, there is a similar drama, with a different outcome. Princess Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetsky, an impoverished aristocrat who wheels-and-deals for a prestigious job in the army for her son, learns that wealthy Count Bezhukov is dying.  She cannily discerns that Pierre, his favorite "natural" son, might be the heir.  She bustles Pierre to the house and physically wrests the most recent will from one of the Princesses, who has extracted it from under the Count's pillow to destroy it. And so Pierre inherits, unaware of the machinations of Princess Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetsky. Prince Vasili Kuragin, who had hoped to be the heir, manipulates Pierre and embezzles huge amounts of money from his estate. 

Oh, dear. This present-day situation is, well, similar but trashier. I can't believe there is a lawsuit!  The executor is occasionally charming but bossy and manipulative, and comes from quite an irregular background. I am not a fan: he quoted the greeting card slogan, "Don't forget to have children," to me when I was an infertile young woman, and another time referred to a hostess who was not related by blood and whom I barely knew as my "wished-for mother."  (My mother and the hostess might have bonded over the surprise.)  Later, after he meted out the leftovers to everyone except the hostess, who confided in tears she had hoped to get another meal out of it, I drew my conclusions about this chaos-inciting person. Dysfunctional family politics:  deliberate, or not?

By the time everything has been squandered by the lawsuits and petty pilfering (one of the combatants was an embezzler and the other went to jail for drugs),  I predict that only a couple of hundred-dollar bills will be left.  

There are NO expectations.  It is a chimera. 

I plan to turn on (the TV), tune in, and drop out. 

Who knew life was a 19th-century novel? 


  1. Oh, without question. I've been on the losing end of several family fortunes, and have the philosophical mind. Or as Jane Austen said, "his will was read, and like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure." Things don't change as much as we think...

  2. "And do not engage in combat over a will, says Gandhi. Or wait, maybe that wasn't Gandhi."
    Well, it's one of the central themes of Bleak House.

    "I avoid these "trashy" people and their mayhem... Dysfunctional family politics"
    That's the great virtue of friends - you get to choose them (unless you get really dysfunctional ones who choose you without consultation).
    The Victorians really did go in for odd wills. I mentioned Edward Bulwer. who transmogrified into Bulwer-Lytton because of a will, before, but requiring people to change their names under a will happened surprisingly often, and there were all kinds of other oddities.
    They still go on. The English lesbian peace campaigner Pat Arrowsmith could only inherit under her father's will if she married a man. The marriage lasted one day and she gave the money away.

    It sounds like this will was made without a lawyer's aid, so if people are really mad they can have a good, expensive series of court cases until it meets the fate of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce - or is US law different there? Do people keep paying until they run out of money, but the actual inheritance isn't affected by the costs? If you aren't going to take part in the fun and games, suggest that the executors and beneficiaries find a mutually-agreed non-legal arbiter. It'll be much cheaper for everyone involved, even if it isn't as exciting.

  3. Yes, I do think John Jarndyce had the right idea! Bow out. Henry James went in for all kinds of will intrigues. I think there was a threat attached to the will of the heroine's father in Washington Square: he would disinherit her if she married her suitor. She didn't care, but the suitor did.

    I am filing away the notion of the mutually-agreed non-legal arbiter.

    1. The way lawyers work - or, rather, the way I think lawyers work - is summed up in the story of a young lawyer who opened an office in a small town where there was no other lawyer. He nearly starved. Fortunately another lawyer moved into town and now they're both doing very well.

    2. Hilarious! I can see this happening. Small towns are not quite like John Mellencamp's song. I do think this anecdote fits the American way. At least the alleged "heirs" do not have to change their name, as Bulwer-Lytton did.

  4. I love Pierre Bezhukov! He is so real compared to society around him. One of my pet theories is that his mother was a serf and that is why so many conflicts surround him and so much acrimony comes his way. Didnt Tolstoy have a child with a serf woman in his youth?

    1. I love your theory! At the beginning, he has spent 10 years in France with a tutor and has just returned to Petersburg. His maternity is a mystery.