Keynote lectures


Andrew Counter

Wills, Plots, Politics: Nineteenth-Century France versus Nineteenth-Century England

The centrality of inheritance to nineteenth-century European narrative is not in doubt. As a literary theme, it provided fiction writers with a svelte means of investigating a number of the century’s social obsessions, from intergenerational conflict to the changing nature of property under capitalist modernity, all the while of course necessarily implicating that perennial literary obsession: death. Yet inheritance was also, perhaps separately, a superb driver of plot, thanks especially to the eminent theatricality of the will: the revelation of the deceased’s wishes ‘from beyond the grave’, stripped as it was assumed to be of hypocrisy, promised a special sort of anagnorisis to readers acutely aware of their society’s hidebound conventionality; while as was often observed at the time, the ‘surprise legacy’ was irresistible to lazy writers of the stage and the page, who needed to move a plot along, or else end one, suddenly and conveniently.

Yet what happens when legal reform alters or eradicates some of the very features that made the law of succession so literarily useful? What in particular happens when the will, that otherworldly document whereby the fates of the living are controlled by the wishes of the dead, is weakened or rendered obsolete? This is arguably what happened in France during the Revolution: revolutionary legislators made successional reform a priority, pursuing their egalitarian political vision through the imposition of mandatory partibility and the substantial restriction of the power of bequest. At a stroke, they thus deprived the French writers of the coming century of the very things their Victorian counterparts found so attractive about inheritance: its suspensefulness, its unpredictability, its air of arcane mystery. (Indeed, revolutionary legislators sometimes alluded to such literary narratives of inheritance precisely as evidence of the necessity of reform.) The result is that, while inheritance is certainly an important theme in French literature, it takes there a rather different form from its arguably more familiar Victorian incarnation—one much more attuned to the political dimensions not only of inheritance, but of law in general. My paper will contrast this nineteenth-century French probing of inheritance as politics with the approach of the Victorian novel, which tends, at least on the surface, to imagine law as a somehow sacred discourse far removed from the relentless temporality of the political.


Andrew Counter is Associate Professor of French at University of Oxford. His research considers the intersections of law, politics, sexuality and literature in France between the Revolution and the Great War.  His work draws on a broad range of methodologies and considers multiple genres, including literary, legal, medical and political discourse, though he has a particular interest in the novel. His first book, Inheritance in Nineteenth-Century French Culture (Oxford: Legenda, 2010), was an interdisciplinary study of the use made by writers of fiction and non-fiction alike of the narratives, vocabulary and ideology of inheritance and property transmission.



Sigrid Weigel

The Bond of Generations in the Writings of Arendt, Benjamin, Heine, and Freud

The paper discusses different but related figures of trans-generational heritage in the writings of Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Heinrich Heine, and Sigmund Freud. The common ground of these German-Jewish authors is an interpretative pattern within the theory of history/ memory based in the idea of a strong bond of subsequent generations and their interrelation, which refers back to the biblical origins of the idea of ‘heritage’. Both Heine and Benjamin hypothesize a secret agreement between the generations, which might be read as the origin of the idea of solidarity. Whereas Heine in his Memoirs (posthumously published) directly cites the Bible when alluding to the relation of Schuld and Schulden (guilt and debts), Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Concept of History (1940) talks of a “weak messianic power” with which “we” (the followers) have been expected. In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis we find a complementary concept in the figure of ‘archaic heritage’ elaborated in Moses and Monotheism (1939), namely a trans-generational transferal of repressed memories of the ancestors to their offspring. While Freud, not coincidentally after the First World War and during the rise of Nazism, discovers the unconscious transfer of guilt, Arendt seeks – after the NS and Second World War – to regain, in the space between human beings, action as the space of the political. By emphasizing ‘natality’ (instead of death, as Heidegger) as a basic human condition she invests policy the acting of men in history with the condition of possibility of a new beginning. The future, according to the insight of these authors, will not be created in abstract images or produced by means of a program, but will come into being by the treatment of the past and the heritage of those who lived before us and by the way in which we act in the present.


Sigrid Weigel is former director of the Research Center for Literature and Culture (ZfL Berlin). Her research interests include literary and cultural theory, German literature from 18th to 20th century, concepts and history of memory (post-holocaust, psychoanalysis), Jewish-German intellectual history (esp. Heine, Freud, Warburg, Scholem, Benjamin, Arendt, Susan Taubes) and cultural approaches to science studies (esp. inheritance, genealogy, facial expression, neuro-psychoanalysis). In 2013 she co-edited an anthology on inheritance; Erbe: Übertragungskonzepte zwischen Natur und Kultur (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2013).



Michelle Dowd

Risky Business: Con Artists, Speculation, and Inheritance in Early Modern English Drama and Beyond

This paper will examine why inheritance is frequently linked with confidence schemes or other forms of financial speculation (such as gambling) in early modern English drama, particularly in comedy of the early seventeenth century.  Considering a range of plays, including Thomas Middleton’s Michaelmas Term, John Cooke’s Greene’s Tu Quoque, Ben Jonson’s Volpone, and others from the period, I will explore the cultural work done by dramatic narratives in which inheritance becomes a site of risk or speculation.  How do such stories reflect upon changing socio-economic and legal conditions in the period?  Are these narratives merely cautionary tales, or do they serve other literary or ideological purposes?  The paper will also look ahead to some of the afterlives of these early modern theatrical depictions, suggesting that the relationship of the con (or speculation more broadly) to inheritance takes on different forms in later English literature (and even in film) in tandem with changes in inheritance law and practice.  In light of the themes of the conference, this paper will address the relationship between literary inheritance and social mobility, inequality, gender, and criminality.  It will suggest that the inheritance scam in early modern drama (and in later literary manifestations) fulfills a cultural fantasy that extends well beyond the monetary, at times modeling or testing out new forms of socioeconomic behavior and, in some manifestations, injecting the possibility of fluidity into otherwise restrictive systems of wealth transfer and social mobility.  


Michelle Dowd is Hudson Strode Professor of English and Director of the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance studies at the University of Alabama. She specializes in early modern literature, with concentrations in Tudor and Stuart drama, Shakespeare and early modern women’s writing. Her additional research interests include early modern theatre culture, dramatic genres, feminist theory and gender studies, economic criticism and early modern religious culture. Her most recent book, The Dynamics of Inheritance on the Shakespearean Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) offers a new understanding of how the theatre, England’s most vibrant cultural institution in the Renaissance, shaped attitudes about primogeniture, one of the country’s most longstanding economic systems.