Sarah Lyall reports from London for the New York Times. I love her stuff; she takes people and stories as seriously or as wittily as they deserve, and is an excellent observer of British society.
So I had a good time reading her Sunday front page piece on what I’m tempted to call The (British) War Against Women (Aristocrats). Because Lyall is right: it is unfair. And only Lyall can make me feel sort of bad for titled women because, thanks to primogeniture — a word I’ve scarcely thought about since I first learned its meaning a thousand years ago when reading history — these women get cheated. And they sound like intelligent, creative women I’d personally like.
“My father always said, ‘Remember to wear a safety belt, because your face is your fortune,’ ” said Liza Campbell, a daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor (yes, there is one in real life, not just in “Macbeth”), and now, after her father’s death, sister of the 26th.
Here’s how it goes: say there’s a grand British estate with a title that goes with it. The Earl of Somesuch. And say the old earl dies. Who gets the title and the estate? His oldest male child, that’s who. Doesn’t matter if the earl has a dozen fine daughters like Liza Campbell, born before the male child. The boy gets the goods, the whole goods. And the daughters are dependent upon the grace of the new His Grace if they want to visit the family great house where they grew up and where the boy child now resides.
Of course, at least one intra-family lawsuit has sprung out of this injudicious mess.
“When we were growing up, it was always, ‘When your brother lives here. …’ ” said an aristocratic woman who grew up on a grand estate she loved, only to have her younger brother inherit it when their father died. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she did not want to stir up family grievances, said that no one ever questioned the system.
“Even though my father had witnessed his mother’s near-collapse at not inheriting the house she grew up in, he did not adjust his own behavior towards his daughter,” said the woman, now in her late 50s. “Though I loved him and he loved me, the rule of inheritance was as strong for him as the rule that you do not have children out of wedlock.”
She is lucky: her brother lets her and her children visit the house whenever they want. Some sisters are not so fortunate. The children of the late Lord Lambton, for instance, have been locked in a nasty dispute over his multimillion-pound estate, which when he died in 2006 passed down entirely to his youngest child and only son, Ned.
Three of his five daughters have sued their brother, claiming that since Lord Lambton spent his last decades in his villa in Italy, his estate should be subject to Italian law, which does not have primogeniture. They are asking for $1.5 million apiece. The brother — whose arrival in the family, a much-wanted son after five daughters, was celebrated with an ox-roasting and a bonfire — has countersued in English court.
Citing the legal battles, the sisters did not want to comment. But Peregrine Worsthorne, a prominent writer and political commentator who is married to Lucinda Lambton, one of the daughters, said that the system had wreaked havoc on the family.
“It’s normal if everything is left to the eldest son that he will take some consideration of his siblings,” Mr. Worsthorne said. “They’re not being greedy. He is a very rich man.”
As Lyall notes, “Downton Abbey” made this point in the opening episode. But there is hope: a couple of strong women are up in royal arms.
So read the story for a bit of Neo-Downton during hiatus. It’s high minded gossip and entertaining for all that, but it also will make you glad you are not a female British aristocrat.