Sunday night brought us the third episode in the ITV adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
Vanity Fair follows the story of Becky Sharpe, a poor orphan out to make her fortune by whatever means necessary. She’s already courted her friend Amelia’s wealthy yet insecure brother and following a disastrous and drunken evening he took his leave of poor Becky.
Since then, Becky has become very friendly with Lady Matilda Crawley the wealthy aunt of Rawdon, one of her suitors. Rawdon is a dashing military officer who relies on his aunt for handouts and because she isn’t married, hopes to inherit her huge fortune. There is competition though. Matilda demonstrates the typical upper class snobbery of the early 19th century and is disgusted to learn of the marriage of her nephew and Becky and views this as a betrayal and desperate attempt to inherit her fortune. As a result she cuts them off.
This is the first in an interesting case of inheritance and succession law discussion points. The principle of testamentary freedom (the right to gift your property, chattels, real estate etc. to whom you want) is one that is specific to English & Welsh Law and differs from the rules of many civil law jurisdictions, France for example.
Whilst Matilda Crawley resents her family and knows they simply want to inherit her enormous wealth she has the power to keep them all guessing as to where it will be going. Should Captain Rawdon get nothing he has no claim, but should this have happened post 1975 then he may have been able to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975. The reason for this is because he has relied on the charity of his aunt to maintain his lifestyle so may qualify as a ‘person being maintained’. Historically though he had no rights. Part of me hopes that Miss Briggs the maid inherits to the disappointment of all of the Crawleys.
What does differ is that in 1814 when Vanity Fair’s third episode was set the primary piece of legislation governing Will writing as we know it (The Wills Act 1837) hadn’t come into force. What was in place was the 1796 tax on estates which was introduced to help the war against Napoleon.
The idea of cutting someone out of your inheritance was also prevalent in the Osbourne’s story line. George disobeyed his Father’s request to go to war as well as the request to marry Amelia and runs the risk of disinheriting himself.
The next episode will certainly be enlightening. What will happen to Lady Crawley, will George Osbourne reunite with his father and what will Becky’s fate be? Will she find fortune?
Our characters will be thinking more about their demise in later episodes. Napoleon has escaped and is coming back to France, our gallant officers are going to war and our wealthy and more mature (in age) characters like Lady Crawley and Mr Osbourne will be thinking about inheritances and a line of succession.
Interestingly, Inheritance law was different in the early 1800’s when Vanity Fair was set. The more modern inheritance tax legislation didn’t come into force until 1894 and was introduced in order to help the government pay off a whopping £4m deficit. Death tax in some form has been in place since 1694 and for as long as there has been Inheritance Tax, there has been tax avoidance and in . Savvy businessmen like Mr Osbourne will no doubt be wanting to gift assets in his lifetime to avoid any charges. He’ll be even more intent on avoiding charges at the time including the 1796 tax on estates introduced to help fund the war against Napoleon, especially as he didn’t want his son to go to war.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of Vanity Fair.