Wills and Estates Law in George Eliot’s Middlemarch
The Victorians consigned themselves to more subtlety in their works of entertainment than we at present do. To all appearances, theirs was decidedly not an age capable of enjoying rap music and HBO comedies. The spiciest themes in their art, therefore, would include marriage intrigues, duels, financial scandals – or, as we see in George Eliot’s Middlemarch – controversial wills and eccentric testators.
The wills and estates subplot in Middlemarch is comprised of all the ingredients that you may see in a modern legal drama: a rich and erratic miser (Mr. Featherstone) manipulating his relatives with implied promises of future bequests; the idle protégée (Fred Vincy) who accumulates debts with the idea that the testator will bail him out; concern over the testator’s attachment to his young caregiver (Mary Garth); a train of impoverished relatives ill-concealing their greedy expectations; and much discussion on why “blood” was deserving and why “strangers” were not.
It is remarkable how little has changed in a century or so with respect to wills and estates. Then, as now, a Mr. Featherstone who promises a bequest, receives consideration, and then goes back on his word, may be found to have broken a binding contract – as occurred in Legeas v. Trusts & Guarantee Co. Likewise, a ruling of unjust enrichment (Moore v. Sweet) or specific performance (Folsetter v. Yorkshire & Canadian Trust Co.) could be made against him/his estate.
Still relevant today are the challenges of undue influence and incapacity. In the story, the scheming relatives are alarmed at Mr. Featherstone’s connection to Ms. Garth. She, all too aware of an undue influence allegation, refuses her patron’s money and ignores him when he orders her, while on his deathbed, to destroy his wills. In return, he throws his cane at her, which is perhaps evidence of incapacity.
Much as we may laugh at the relatives in Middlemarch who repeatedly visit Mr. Featherstone to remind him of his obligations to his “own flesh and blood”, our own law continues to ascribe significance to bloodlines. The Succession Law Reform Act defines “child” based upon conception, and the statute’s intestacy provisions speak of “issue” and the “nearest degree” of kindred. As many an adopted child and step-child knows, with respect to estates law, blood still matters.
There are some marked differences between Eliot’s England and modern Canada. Whereas Fred Vincy was loaned money in part because the creditors knew he was favoured by Mr. Featherstone, we now have businesses openly and explicitly offering advances to those who “have an inheritance coming”. Although we still use the Banks v. Goodfellow test for evaluating capacity, there have been some innovations, such as capacity assessments done after death and more nuanced, neuroscientific understandings of capacity. Lastly, if Mr. Featherstone had died in Ontario in 2020, he could not take as much comfort in tantalizing relatives and then crushing their hopes, for we have dependency support laws whereby testators must provide “adequate provision” for their “dependents”. Perhaps the creation of such laws was influenced, in part, by the ghoulish conduct of such Victorian literary characters.
Thank you for reading. Enjoy the rest of your day!
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry.