What is it with the British and their long, convoluted tales of inheritance? I just finished an 800-page Jeffery Archer novel that purported to be a rags-to-riches story about a merchant building an empire–an American-style plot–but ended up hinging on baseborn babies and secret codicils and all the other trappings of British melodramatic fiction.
I think that is one way in which I am far too American. That mystical hold of Birth doesn’t pack the same punch with many of us born on this side of the Lochan Mor. We don’t have Lords and Marquesses (?@?) This whole thing of finding out your life is better because you started out in the testicles of one man versus the testicles of another is just too…
I mean, yeah. I get it. Even here in the States we’re some of us born into privilege that others will never know. But the lines are a lot more blurry. Finding out that your Real Father is a rich guy isn’t the same thing as finding out he’s some entitled, landed, parliamentary whingodoodle.
As I ponder it some more, I think that perhaps Slavery was one of the things that transformed our narrative culture away from the Magic Birthright trope. After all, here were vast numbers of people viewed as chattle, the lowest of cultural rungs. Among them there were many, many children who were sired by the Master, the Master’s son or some visiting cousin. And it seldom made any difference at all. Finding out you were The Master’s Daughter wasn’t an automatic elevation into the top rung of society–more often than not it just meant that you didn’t entirely fit in either world. It isn’t the Oliver Twist miracle that it would be in Britain.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with that denouement, but as I get older and do more of my own writing I realise I’m downright angry about it. Because the good ending doesn’t come as a result of anything the character has done. If a novel is a character’s journey from innocence to experience, the exploration of the human heart in conflict with itself, there is no growth in finding out that you started in a different place. Your character is no better or worse in their essential personhood for having had a different origin. Even worse, those novels that end with the uncovering of the Birthright always end with Protagonist being happy and having lots of money. There’s never the question of why this wealthy person figured you were no better than table scraps.
In the last five years I’ve read exactly ONE novel that took this same Birthright convention and worked within the trope while still turning the whole thing on its ear. If you’re into Victorian literature at all, I’d encourage you to hunt down a copy of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. At the same time, I’d encourage you to not bother with Jeffery Archer’s As The Crow Flies.