Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Entail, Galt's best book

The Entail (1822) - this is the hardest one for me to write about.  I think it's really among the best English novels of the century, but it may be hard to make the case.  In some ways, it hardly seems English.  It's Scottish Balzac, a bit less than a decade before the French version.

Claud Walkinshaw is obsessed with owning the estate lost by his grandfather in an ill-fated American speculation.  Claud is self-made, an orphan since he was one, a peddler at age eleven.  We have barely started the novel when we find Claud already "one of the wealthiest men of that age in Glasgow" (Ch. VIII), married with three sons and a daughter.  The novel covers over a hundred years, so it has to move pretty fast sometimes. 

So the plot is not about the re-acquisition of the estate.  The first hint of the real story comes a few pages later.  Claud's father-in-law settles his property on Claud's second son, not his first, because the first son presumably inherits Claud's own estate.  In a normal family, good enough.  But because of Claud's obsession with regaining and maintaining his grandfather's old lands, Claud wants to unite the two farms and make sure they can never be separated.  He secretly disinherits his oldest son in favor of the second.

This decision ruins his life, and destroys all three sons.  The grandchildren, with the help of Claud's wife, the magnificent Leddy Girzy Hypel, finally repair some of the damage.

The reader is expected to keep track of the order of inheritance specified in the entail.  I guess that's a little more work than usual.  And it does cover a long period.  Sometimes a character is discarded just as you get to know her.  The last third of the novel is weak compared to what comes before, mostly because we have lost two of the best characters. 

But the three best characters, Claud and Watty and Leddy Girzy are superb and not to be found elsewhere.  And the plot is really very strong, basically from the beginning to end, once you see what it is, Claud's obsession with a particular monetary arrangement infecting his family and wreaking havoc across generations.  A few key intense scenes - Claud's death, for example, or poor Watty's trial for mental competency - put this novel among the century's best.

I have a couple of days left to make that case.  We'll see.

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful densely written novel. It is humorous and packed with character. Particularly interesting for those, like myself, originally from the west of Scotland, as though the book is written in English, the dialogue is in Scots.

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  2. The use of Scots dialect is ingenious.

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