Family Likeness

Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf

Mary Jean Corbett
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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    Family Likeness
    Book Description:

    In nineteenth-century England, marriage between first cousins was both legally permitted and perfectly acceptable. After mid-century, laws did not explicitly penalize sexual relationships between parents and children, between siblings, or between grandparents and grandchildren. But for a widower to marry his deceased wife's sister was illegal on the grounds that it constituted incest. That these laws and the mores they reflect strike us today as wrongheaded indicates how much ideas about kinship, marriage, and incest have changed.

    In Family Likeness, Mary Jean Corbett shows how the domestic fiction of novelists including Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Virginia Woolf reflected the shifting boundaries of "family" and even helped refine those borders. Corbett takes up historically contingent and culturally variable notions of who is and is not a relative and whom one can and cannot marry. Her argument is informed by legal and political debates; texts in sociology and anthropology; and discussions on the biology of heredity, breeding, and eugenics. In Corbett's view, marriage within families-between cousins, in-laws, or adoptees-offered Victorian women, both real and fictional, an attractive alternative to romance with a stranger, not least because it allowed them to maintain and strengthen relations with other women within the family.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5995-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-29)

    Between the summer of 1907 and the spring of 1908, Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) composed a family memoir called “Reminiscences.” While I will return to it at the end of this book, its final chapter is especially significant for my immediate purposes in that it provides a glimpse of the historical shift in the meanings of incest in its representation of one upper-middle-class Victorian family experience. “Reminiscences” tells of the aftermath of the death of Stella Duckworth Hills in 1897; the intimate relationship that developed thereafter between Jack Hills and his sister-inlaw, Vanessa Stephen (later Bell); and the disapproval that...

  2. (pp. 30-56)

    Beyond the gothic terrors that Catherine Morland imagines in the closed-off chambers and curious cabinets of Northanger Abbey (1818), a more mundane mystery awaits solution, one that she cannot so readily gloss with reference to her reading. Announcing to Henry “that when he next went to Woodston, they would take him by surprize there some day or other, and eat their mutton with him,” General Tilney explicitly tells his son “not to put yourself at all out of your way.”¹ When the general proceeds to name the day, Henry expedites his departure from Northanger so that all will be ready...

  3. (pp. 57-85)

    With ample selections from contemporary family letters, the sixth chapter of E. M. Forster’s Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography (1956), entitled “Deceased Wife’s Sister,” tells the story of “a fantastic mishap” that his grandparents’ generation “could only regard as tragic.”¹ After the death of his first wife, Harriet, in 1840, Henry Thornton decided to take another—no crime in that, except that his intended, Emily Dealtry, was Harriet’s younger sister. At once, “the situation became very awkward” (MT 190). Having lived with Henry all her life, his sister Marianne “behaved civilly” to Emily, who “had continued to frequent the house”...

  4. (pp. 86-114)

    Although the widowed Mrs. Pryor of Shirley (1849) cautions Caroline Helstone that “two people can never literally be as one,” an exultant Jane Rochester, echoing Genesis, writes that “no woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.”¹ While advocates of marital reform would increasingly argue that women should retain separate legal personalities in marriage, Jane’s biblically based assertion of physiological oneness between husband and wife was not an entirely dead metaphor: cultural conservatives who insisted on the unity of the conjugal couple, coming under siege at...

  5. (pp. 115-143)

    Stronger than the death that does not divide them, matched in affective intensity only by Heathcliff’s quite literal ambition to come between Edgar and Catherine Linton in the grave, the tie between Maggie and Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss provides supreme testimony to the persistence of the first-family bond in the nineteenth-century English tradition. Having renounced her cousin Lucy’s fiancé on the ground that there can be no conception of duty, no moral compass by which to steer, “if the past is not to bind us,” Maggie returns to the fold of the sibling dyad.¹ Recalling the...

  6. (pp. 144-173)

    Of the three families in the foreground of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, only one is constructed through the discourse of breeding and heredity that pervades the early books of The Mill on the Floss, set at the same historical moment but within a distinctly different provincial milieu. In representing the Hamleys, Gaskell devotes specific attention to intergenerational family resemblances and divergences in a way that recalls, but does not exactly repeat, Eliot’s text. Parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds—the daughter of a London merchant and the only son of “a very old family, if not aborigines”—produce two boys.¹...

  7. (pp. 174-200)

    In “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf sought once more to come to terms with “the past” in writing—but flinched at the task. “I do not want to go into my room at Hyde Park Gate. I shrink from the years 1897–1904, the seven unhappy years” when the Stephen sisters “were fully exposed without protection to the full blast of that strange character,” “the alternately loved and hated father” (“SP” 136, 107, 116). Orchestrated by George Duckworth, the “Greek slave years” of “coming out” were filled with “drudgery and tyranny,” as the sisters suffered under the “accepted...

  8. (pp. 201-210)

    “Can the family be redeemed?” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick poses this question in an illuminating discussion of “queer tutelage” published in the early 1990s. It is this question I have also sought to address by feminist historicist means in the wake of queer theory. Suggesting that knowledge of more expansive practices in the past, comparable to the ones I have analyzed here, might provide precedent for projecting “into the future a vision of ‘family’ elastic enough to do justice to the depth and sometimes durability” of intimate “bonds,” Sedgwick holds out an alluring prospect: that “the family of the present can...