The Inheritance: the background
August 20th, 2008
The idea for The Inheritance came to me after my mother died, when we sold her house – our family home since 1963 – dividing everything between us. We all wanted to be fair, but there were still arguments. You’re not just divvy-ing up possessions and money, but family memories, and, besides, what is ‘fair’? My lead character, In The Inheritance, Bramble lives in her father’s house and runs his business, so she will have to lose her home and livelihood if her two sisters – one of whom is wealthy and one estranged from the family – are to have their share. But why was her sister estranged? Do people use their wills as a final restitution or is it just sometimes too late to say ‘sorry’?
While I was writing The Inheritance stories poured in from other people about their own experiences. There were those who discussed everything before they died and left a list of who should have what, only to leave a terrible family split behind because no-one had been comfortable enough to say what they really meant at the time. There were valuable gifts left to friends – which the sons and daughters had to pay inheritance tax on – and countless examples of sons or daughters being considered ‘the rich one’ (even if their apparent wealth was quite modest) and therefore being left out of wills. And there were bank accounts that revealed some surprising secrets as to who had been receiving what before the death. But I think it’s grief, as much as greed, that motivates the bad behaviour that inevitably surrounds a will – maybe the ‘greediest’ are sometimes the ones that hurt the most and are least able to express it.
One of the saddest moments in my life was leaving my mother’s house for the last time, having packed up the last of the furniture, leaving only the squares of dust on the walls where the pictures had been. Yet it all smelt the same as it ever had – a musty mixture of beeswax, log fires and scented soap, evoking a ghostly memory of all the happy times. But less than two hours later, we loved unpacking her furniture in our own home and bringing it all to life again. The things we all treasure most haven’t been the most valuable: one of my sisters-in-law has my mother’s heavy old frying pan and another a particularly pretty soup plate. And my favourite is being able to turn the attic curtains – second-hand when she hung them in 1963 – into cushion covers.
Greed or grief? What are your experiences of sharing an inheritance? How do you think it ought to be done?