Claud Grippy’s grandfather was once a laird with a great estate. But after a series of financial mistakes, that estate was lost, and Claud was born into poverty. His parents died, and his nanny brought him up, constantly whispering into his ear that when he became a man, his first goal ought to be to bring the Grippy estate back into his own possession. This became his goal, indeed, or his obsession: to scrape together every penny; to marry well; to trade good land for indifferent land — all so that he could look out over the lands of his ancestors and call them his own.
But Claud Walkinshaw wanted to take it farther than that: he wanted to be as sure as mortal man can be that the estate would never slip out of his descendants’ hands, as it had out of his grandfather’s. So he entailed the land on his sons. But (but!) because of all Claud’s wheeling and dealing with the land, the only way the estate could be entailed whole and entire was by cutting his bright, handsome, loving eldest son out of the succession until implausibly late, and settling everything on his second son, whose mental capacities render him incapable of managing the estate.
But all this happens in the first 75 pages or so. I could not possibly give you a summary of the complicated structure of this book by John Galt — all the twists and turns, all the marriages and births and deaths, all the lawsuits and heirs-male and repentance and covetousness and deathbed pronouncements that go into the final result. Claud’s decision ruins his own life and that of all three sons, destroying generations like a seeping poison. It is his wife, along with his grandson Jamie, who finally repair some of the damage. This book is as full of plot — of things happening one after another — as a fruitcake is full of fruit, and it is fast-paced and fascinating.
The lively pace is only part of what makes it great, however. There are characters in The Entail that stand up to some of the greatest in literature. Claud Walkinshaw is one of them: the miser who eventually understands what he’s done, and repents. The two greatest characters in the novel, however, are Claud’s wife, universally referred to as the Leddy, and his second son, Walter, the “daftie.”
At first, I mistook the Leddy for a purely comic character. She speaks in a broad Scottish dialect, which is a challenge to begin with. Her malapropisms and absurd sense that she knows the intimate details of the Scottish law disturb the gravity of everyone she comes into contact with — and certainly disturbed mine. But she isn’t there only for comic relief. Instead, she grows from a woman who is chiefly concerned with what is due to herself into someone who wants to see justice done, and is willing to go to almost any lengths to do it.
Walter is another case. He’s described as a “haverel,” a “natural,” an idiot. But Galt doesn’t let the character slide into caricature or devolve into a mere prop for the plot involving the entail. Often, Walter misunderstands things in revealing ways, or by his simplicity shows the complexity of the law to be utterly corrupt. He insists on his own way, often when I don’t expect him to — in fact, he rarely did what I expected him to. One very powerful scene of the novel is when Walter’s cold-hearted younger brother takes him to court to prove him mentally unfit to rule the estate.
The jury then turned round and laid their heads together; the legal gentleman spoke across the table, and Walter was evidently alarmed at the bustle. – In the course of two or three minutes, the foreman returned a verdict of Fatuity.
The poor Laird shuddered, and, looking at the Sheriff, said, in an accent of simplicity that melted every heart, “Am I found guilty? – O surely, Sir, ye’ll no hang me, for I cou’dna help it?”
Watty’s fate is deeply moving. The novel — the entail — strips everything from Walter: land, love, title, child, and eventually even the sense he had. His father’s actions come to rest in bitter ways.
I read this novel because Tom at Wuthering Expectations recommended it so highly. The convoluted entail-plot and the Scottish dialect of some of the characters slowed me down, and I was glad: I wanted to take the book in slowly. This is a marvelous book.