Top 10 novels about inheritance | Books

Where there’s a will, there’s often a row. A legacy need be of no great value to cause a spat: I’ve seen grown siblings weep over their dead mother’s favourite salad bowl. But an inheritance seldom brings out the best in people and the larger the prize, the greater the conflict and moral corruption it is likely to occasion. Such ructions were the mainstay of the great Victorian novels, often deployed as the turbines in the vast engine rooms of 19th-century fiction. They feature in Trollope, Wilkie Collins and Dickens and continue into contemporary fiction. Divided fortunes can create divided families – and good stories.

War medals, flowers, a dead boy’s hair: their changing resonance through time brings opportunities to consider the difference between value and values; between family and fortune. How are we to remember the lost sweetness of our own young lives and find ways to memorialise the dead? Ultimately, inheritance isn’t only about stuff. In the end we have to hope, as Larkin wrote, that: “What will survive of us is love.”

1. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Shakespeare’s King Lear is perhaps the most confounding fiction ever written about inheritance. Why doesn’t the favourite daughter just humour her batty old father and get the prize? This question, among others raised by the play, lodged itself in the mind of US novelist Smiley. Her novel is a subtle and at times harrowing reworking of the Lear story, in which the kingdom becomes a farm in the mid-west. As a study of how toxic a legacy may be, it is hard to better.

2. The Quincunx by Charles Palliser
As well as being a flawless reworking of a Victorian novel, in which our hero must overcome terrible obstacles in order to receive his just inheritance, The Quincunx is also an extremely clever puzzle. The number five is key: five families, five sections and a title that may or may not nudge the reader towards an answer. At more than a thousand pages, it is like being stuck on the most crucial clue of a cryptic crossword, while lost in a labyrinth. This book may send you crazy, but it is a remarkable achievement.

3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
It’s one thing to inherit a grand house by the sea in Cornwall and another to inherit a rich husband – but inheriting a deranged housekeeper is a dark legacy. Our heroine has to contend with all three. If ever a story destabilised the notion that inheritance is a privilege, it’s Rebecca.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in the 2020 film adaptation of Rebecca.
Armie Hammer and Lily James in the 2020 film adaptation of Rebecca. Photograph: NETFLIX/Allstar

4. Howards End by EM Forster
This novel is about an inheritance that does not go according to plan – although the prize, a house, ends up in the correct hands. Where it differs from earlier – and some later – novels on a similar theme is that the legacy is neither passed on by nor given to posh people. And they’re both women.

5. My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Johnson examines an alternative America in which the white supremacist attack that took place in Charlottesville in 2017 was only a beginning. Fleeing racist militia, fugitives from a threatened neighbourhood pitch up at Monticello, the plantation home of the third US president, Thomas Jefferson. The story is narrated by Da’Naisha, a descendant of his from his relationship with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings. This book is a history lesson, a fable, an inquiry into the nature of historic monuments, a heartfelt tale of community and above all a nail-biting story.

6. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
In this short gothic novel, most of the members of a family have already been poisoned by arsenic. The surviving sisters spend their days in seclusion in a big old mansion, guarding the money in the family safe, until a caddish male cousin appears. Deliciously funny and macabre.

7. The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James
This novel is about a controlling old woman who is determined not to let her only son come into his inheritance unless he marries the girl of her choosing. The mother is sure that the exquisite rarity of her taste is matched by a genius for manipulation – what could possibly go wrong? As with Rebecca, her dreams all go up in smoke, as if inheritance is such a poisoned chalice that it can only be purged by fire.

8. Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespeare
Inheritance has the most electrifying opening pages of any novel I have read. The premise is that a man who mistakenly wanders into the wrong chapel in a crematorium inherits £17m. A terrific story, with passages about the history of Armenia that echo Louis de Bernières at his best.

9. The Eustace Diamonds by Henry Trollope
This is just the book for anyone who relished this year’s Netflix hit Inventing Anna. Lizzie Eustace is a liar and a fiend, who fibs her way into keeping the priceless diamonds – until she is found out. You know she’s a wrong ’un but you can’t help being on her side.

10. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Dickens couldn’t be left off this list, and although Bleak House is famously about the futility of going to law over an inheritance, there is, in my mind, no better novel about coming into a fortune and what it does to someone than Great Expectations. Sweet young Pip turns into a pompous snob, until the true circumstance of his wealth is uncovered. And there are unforgettable characters: Miss Havisham in her cobwebby wedding dress, escaped convict Magwitch in the foggy graveyard and haughty Estella, raised to taunt boys.

Bad Relations by Cressida Connolly is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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