Jorden de ärvde (“The Land They Inherited”) has been one of the most talked-about non-fiction books in Sweden this autumn. In it, the journalist Björn af Kleen looks at the large estates still in the possession of the nobility and tries to explain how they have managed to hang on to them.
At the centre is the entail system, known as “fideikommiss” in Swedish, whereby the estate with all its land, buildings and collections is inherited undivided by the eldest son of each generation. Most countries abolished this system a rather long time ago, while Sweden only took steps to do so in the second half of the 20th century. Fifty years ago there were 111 entailed estates in Sweden and in 1964 it was decided by law that they would be dissolved upon the death of the incumbent.
There was, however, an article saying that an entail might be prolonged if the estate was of significant cultural value. This article was meant specifically for Skokloster Castle, but the author explores how several other landowners have won government approval for the prolongation of the entail connected to their estates.
This is not unproblematic, as it has deprived younger siblings, daughters in particular, of their inheritance. Occasionally entails have been prolonged in direct contravention of a late landowner’s will, thereby creating some rather bitter family feuds. The author provides several examples of this, such as Johan af Petersens’s falling out with his siblings and demanding the eviction of his 90-year-old mother from the manor, describing “Mummy’s occupation of the Big House at Erstavik” as “a criminal act”.
There are several quite detailed descriptions of such family feuds, and as a reader one may sometimes feel that the author goes a bit too far in washing other people’s dirty linen in public. One of the landowners portrayed in the book, Baron Carl Gripenstedt, has already taken legal action, but later withdrew the case.
In the second part of the book, Björn af Kleen investigates in what other ways the nobility and the landowners (not all of whom are noble) have tried to maintain their privileges and way of life. Several landowners are interviewed in the book and they implicitly provide a quite fascinating insight into their mentality and how they see the world.