Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Woman in White

Recently, my book club read the book The Woman in White by Willkie Collins. The book was written in the 1850s and concerns a series of mysterious events in England set in then-present day. It's a long read, but there are some interesting, suspenseful turns and I would recommend it.

One of the principal issues in the book relates to inheritance, one of the key areas of tension in Downton Abbey, particularly during the first season. In the book, the main characters are all concerned with the discussion of a "marriage settlement" which will be decided before a young noblewoman, Lady Laura Fairlie, will be married. The family structures in these two works are somewhat different, but they both experience the difficulty associated with there being only a female heir.

This interests me for a number of reasons. Of course, I think today the notion of male primogeniture is out-of-date. In the last 30 years, both the United Kingdom and Norway have amended their laws to permit a first-born daughter to become queen. While no one knows just yet what will happen for Prince William and Princess Catherine, the first woman to inherit the title of Queen of Norway is already here. Meet Princess Ingrid! Her grandfather is currently ruling Norway, but she is next in line after her father. She also outranks her younger brother, Prince Sverre.

I also think the fact that the marriage settlement was discussed so openly 150 years ago is interesting in our culture today. Sometimes it seems like making agreements about the disposition of assets before the marriage is only important for people who don't take marriage seriously. In fact, it seems to me like there's a bit of prejudice against prenuptial agreements, because they are perceived as a sign of weakness. Although it's possible that ordinary folks in the days of the Woman in White and Downton Abey didn't have marriage settlements like those with titles and vast estates, I have to wonder when these subjects became taboo among the general populace.

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