When my mother died, a wealthy widow, having inherited a fortune from my father, she did not leave her money to her only remaining daughter. Though she had always told my older sister and me, “Everything I have is yours,” in the end she reverted to her past and disinherited me.
I accepted this decision in the moment. There are plenty of wealthy people who decide it is better for their children not to inherit their money, after all. Also, my father, who seems to have been prescient in this case, had thought to leave me some money in trust, though it was only a fraction of what my mother inherited.
Literature, too, is full of inheritance stories, where the money inherited is not a blessing but leads to suffering and disillusion.
We have an example of this in Henry James’ wonderful Portrait of a Lady, where poor Isabelle Archer inherits a grand fortune which allows the sinister Madame Merle to lead her into an unhappy marriage with a fortune hunter, Gilbert Osmond.
In Dickens’ Great Expectationsm, young Pip, too, is led astray by an inheritance. He believes his inherited money comes from the wealthy Miss Havisham and hopes to marry her ward Estella, when it is really a gift from the convict little Pip has helped on the moors.
We think, too, of D.H. Lawrence’s great story The Rocking Horse Winner, where the child rides literally to his death, trying so desperately to win at the races, riding his magic rocking horse to find the winners, in order to give his mother what she seems to need: money (which he calls filthy lucre) in the hope of gaining her love.
Freud, of course, brings in the theme of money and all the ambivalence attached to it, into many of his case histories. In the Ratman, money seems to be equated with faeces. It is a source of jealousy in the Wolfman when the father gives the daughter two large banknotes which the Wolfman sees as signs of the father’s love and preference for his sibling.
So is the inheritance of money a curse or a blessing? Does money usually convey love and the withholding of a fortune denote a lack thereof? What is the significance ultimately of money?
In my own case the money my mother left went to her own family, her two sisters and her younger brother and their children, and perhaps even to a love child, the child of an early and aborted marriage from her youth. In some way, toward the end of her life, my mother seems to have reverted to an earlier stage in her life.
I have to admit that my mother’s decision to leave me out of her will was ultimately hurtful. Did she no longer love me? What had I done to her, I could not help thinking.
We associate a gift of money with love even if we may be aware of the difficulties that come with a fortune. In my case I turned to the page to understand this mystery. I traced my mother’s life in a book called Love Child in an attempt to understand her decision. In the process I felt I had come to understand my mother, to stand in her shoes, and to see all the suffering in her life, which, brave woman that she was, she had attempted to hide from me out of surely, her love for her child.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.