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Great expectations

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I am mildly addicted to Victorian novels. They are so satisfying, so richly endowed with the essential human themes of love and money. Many plots center around the absorbing question of inheritance. Who will get the old man’s money, who will get the estate, will the disgraced nephew get un undeserved share, will be disgraced sister be cut out of the will entirely?

The slow working-out of these questions, which are usually inextricably tangled with the question of who will marry who, carries the reader smoothly through hundreds of pages and, for the Victorians themselves — at least the middle and upper classes — it was clearly one of the major preoccupations of their lives. They talked and wrote about inheritance constantly.

Inheritance is something of a taboo subject of conversation these days, although it is still the central theme of many books and movies. A search of books in print shows at least 40,000 titles containing the word “inheritance,” so we are obviously just as fascinated by this lottery as the Victorians were.

In the 18th and 19th centuries inheritance was recognized as an important stepping-stone in life. It made young families independent. For most people it was the only possible way to start a business or buy a house. For many too it was the key to a life of creativity. The great botanical artist Pierre Joseph Redouté, and the novelist Anthony Trollope, are two among thousands of men and women who could never have achieved what they did without their inheritance. It was a moment of liberation at least for the eldest child of the family, who could expect to get his or her inheritance at a reasonably young age, certainly in their 30s or 40s. This passing on of property is a very ancient and humane custom.

The delicate balance between the generations has changed. As people have lived longer, inheritance has come later and later. Now it's not unusual to find people in their senior years still waiting more or less patiently for the financial boost that will launch them into their new life.

Baby boomers hold the golden key right now. There are 76 million of them, the largest generation in American history. By 2030 all of them will be over 65, and some will be in their 80s, by which time there will be only two people of working age to support each retiree.

Because of the prosperous times they lived in the baby boomers will liberate an enormous accumulation of wealth and property — an estimated $5 trillion. The housing crisis should be solved as about a quarter of all owner-occupied homes come on the market. Allowing for long retirement expenses and nursing home fees, the children of the boomers should be able to hope for some comfortable retirement years themselves. “Hope,” of course, is the operative word,

In Charles Dickens’s novel, "Great Expectations", which is all about inheritance, the hero Pip suffered a series of ups and downs, and, in the end, all his great expectations were disappointed. Everyone hated this dismal ending, so Dickens obligingly rewrote it to give Pip a new and more optimistic prospect, which is the ending we now find in the book. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between life and fiction.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.