Family Affairs

Laura J. Rosenthal
University of Maryland, College Park

The eighteenth-century novel has recently been read in a variety of contexts: print culture, class tensions, economic change, and the period’s imperial ambitions. None of these seem complete, however, without attention to gender and sexuality, issues so clearly at the center of this genre at this time. While taking into account the range of cultural reconfigurations, two recent books—Ruth Perry’s Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748–1818 (Cambridge, 2004) and Ellen Pollak’s Incest and the English Novel, 1684–1814 (Johns Hopkins, 2003)—refocus attention on gender in new and important ways. Each book describes the emergence of the modern family and the significance of the novel’s engagement with this change as both a site of ideological construction and a space for imaginative alternatives.

In spite of these similar interests, Perry and Pollak have written very different kinds of books. For Pollak, the formation of the modern family becomes apparent through narratives of its violation: “a striking number of English prose fiction narratives written between 1684 and 1814,” she observes, “predicate their plots on the tabooed possibility of incest.” The frequency of incest plots has previously been observed but, as Pollak argues, generally dismissed as incidental. At the other extreme, psychoanalysis and anthropology have given the incest taboo tremendous significance—to the point of constituting the very categories of culture, gender, desire, and even narrative. Pollak, however, aims to “historicize, demystify, and ultimately think beyond the heteropatriarchal formations of modern culture by opening conceptual space in which to redefine the grounds of prohibition and reimagine the structures of desire” (11). These theoretical formulations hold explanatory power for eighteenth-century novels only because the novels have begun to encode the gendered and sexual structures of modernity. Some eighteenth-century texts, she suggests, deploy incest narratives to shore up patriarchal structures in danger of erosion; others, however, use them to expose and thus undermine the operation of power.

By exploring the extensive debates in British history about what kind of relationships constitute incest, Pollak’s opening chapter reveals the incest taboo as culturally contingent, policing boundaries rather than revealing an inherent human aversion. As Pollak explains, while earlier debates reveal tensions between the church and state over the transmission of property, eighteenth-century ones point to class conflicts. Incest debates, however, consistently reveal “the operation of a prior axiom: that women are the natural sexual property of men” (58). Pollak observes two paradoxes that will structure her readings: first, that even though debates over incest are essentially regulatory, they consistently cast themselves as liberationist—from “either ecclesiastical authority, religious superstition, political oppression, or some combination of these forces” (58). Second, that in spite of their liberationist rhetoric, they nevertheless presuppose certain hierarchies, particularly a “structure of gender subordination authorizing male sex right as a natural law” (58).

Aphra Behn and Delarivier Manley both turn to incest narratives as part of their critique of individualism. Philander mobilizes a recognizable liberationist discourse in Love Letters to seduce his wife’s sister, but by comparing the fallout over incest on a male and female subject, Behn reveals the limits of incest’s potential challenge to patriarchal law. Sylvia may escape from her father’s house through an incestuous opportunity, but she does not escape the oedipal structure. In the next chapter, Pollak interestingly places Manley’s fascination with guardian/ward incest in the context of changing historical definitions of these terms: before 1660, wardships reverted to the Crown, which sold them to the highest bidder. Guardians would thus not usually be related to the ward, and a marriage between these parties would not be incestuous. Beginning in the Restoration, however, fathers could appoint guardians to protect against the contingency of underage children becoming orphans. What had once been an economic relationship between king and subject thus now became a privatized one between two men. The incestuous possibility of a young female ward placed under the protection of a libidinous guardian figures prominently in Manley’s New Atalantis. As in Behn, so in Manley does the trope of incest reveal shifting forms of gender hierarchies in a privatized world. (In this context, Eliza Haywood, who organizes plots around ward/guardian incest in Love in Excess and The Fortunate Foundlings, also comes to mind.)

In Defoe and Fielding, by contrast, incest plots reinforce threatened patriarchal structures, naturalizing gender difference and heterosexual desire. Willing to commit a range of transgressions, Defoe’s Moll Flanders nevertheless balks at incest, a resistance that the novel represents as a natural aversion. For Pollack, the novel’s naturalization of the incest taboo undermines the radical potential of Moll’s story. In Tom Jones, incestuous possibilities allow the author to establish a symbolic, rather than a biological, definition of the family, but one that nevertheless reinscribes patriarchal structures. A final chapter on Mansfield Park very interestingly proposes an inverse relationship between incest prohibitions and miscegenation restrictions, showing how the liberalization of incestuous boundaries coincided historically with increased prohibitions against racial mixing. Reading Austen’s novel in the dual contexts of British kinship law and human commodification, Pollak demonstrates the ways in which Austen “discloses the mechanisms whereby power relations are affectively instituted at the level of the individual subject, unmasking the processes whereby what Foucault has called ‘the deployment of alliance’ installs itself in the order of sexuality” (198).

The strengths of this book lie in Pollak’s serious attention to this popular plot configuration and her canny historicization of theory, a project with continuing possibilities for students of the Enlightenment. Pollak’s extended close readings are consistently illuminating, offering particular insight into Mansfield Parkand Moll Flanders. Occasionally, though, they feel limited by an impulse to locate the author on one side of the fence or the other. Pollak makes a wonderful case for Behn’s complex ironization of the incest plot, but couldn’t such a case be made for Fielding as well? But by placing different incest narratives in different contexts (slavery, guardian/ward laws, a particularly famous case of mother/son incest), Pollak productively suggests multiple possible responses to emerging structures of gender and sexuality.

Ruth Perry’s ambitious Novel Relations traces the construction, rather than the violation, of kinship boundaries. While Pollak offers intricate close readings, Perry presents a bird’s-eye view of historical transformation. Pollak seeks to historicize theory; Perry, by contrast, offers an argument about how British kinship changed in the second half of the eighteenth century, relying on historians for support, anthropologists for cross-cultural contrast, and eighteenth-century novelists for illumination. Perry’s introduction and first chapter, “The Great Disinheritance,” skillfully weaves together a wide range of evidence for the fundamental change in kinship structures in the late eighteenth century. (Many readers will find themselves xeroxing these pages for their seminars.) Through these combined sources, the book challenges Lawrence Stone’s classic narrative about the emergence of affective individualism and the rise of the affective family, a theory widely refuted by historians but, as Perry points out, taken for granted in much literary criticism. After Novel Relations, this will no longer be the case. Perry agrees with Stone that the family significantly changed in the eighteenth century; she disagrees, however, with his conclusions about how it changed and who it benefited.

Essentially, Perry argues that by the end of the eighteenth century, conjugality had replaced consanguinity. Before this change, women (and men, for that matter) understood themselves as enmeshed in complex networks of community and family that defined them; after this change, the conjugal relationship tended to close down access to others. But while Stone and his followers celebrate this development as enabling happier marriages and encouraging certain aspects of female self-development, Perry insists that women instead lost considerable ground. The family changed, according to Perry, because the economy changed: enclosure, urbanization, and industrialization radically decreased the women’s economic contribution to the family. Laboring-class families became increasingly dependent on remunerated work, for which adult males consistently received considerably higher wages than women or children. Middle-class families, while different in certain ways, nevertheless developed a similarly gendered structure, with the capital required for business increasingly concentrated in male hands. The older, less individualistic structure held considerable advantages for women, who drew authority and support not only from their immediate family of origin, but from an extended network of kinship relations. The new emphasis on the conjugal tie, by contrast, severely isolated women and left them utterly dependent on a marriage market in which they became desirable (in middle and upper-class families at least) primarily for the wealth they might bring, rather than personal qualities; once married, they remained dependent on a husband who appropriated everything they owned. As Perry demonstrates, a patriarchal culture dominated by conjugality left little recourse for women with abusive or even just indifferent spouses.

Understanding this has to change the way we read the novels of the period. Significantly and innovatively, Perry teases out a complex relationship between history and fiction: in her view, novels do many other things besides represent reality or enforce dominant culture. Perry demonstrates that many popular novels—including some we still read and many that we generally don’t—have father-daughter or brother-sister emotional reunions that eclipse the heroine’s “romantic” interests. These, she argues, express nostalgia over deep losses experienced by women in this period, who may not have had the kind of connections with brothers and fathers that previous generations of women enjoyed. Novels with sentimental marriage plots do not offer evidence that men and women really married each other for love in the late eighteenth century; instead, Perry suggests, these novels provided women readers with an imaginary alternative to their isolation and disempowerment, providing literary compensation for the world of comfort and community they had in living memory lost. Sentimentalism, Perry points out, “occurs when the culture no longer really takes something seriously as a matter of sentiment. . . . Because sentimentality ultimately debases and cheapens feeling, infusions of this cloying, hyperemotional attitude make one suspect that whatever is being sentimentalized is actually governed by rational, calculating motivation that is moving beyond the reach of feeling” (209). Eighteenth-century marriage, Perry argues, falls into that category. Women became relegated to romantic plots because they were increasingly excluded from remunerated work inside and outside of the home. These plots register “not just the mesmerizing appeal of romantic love and individualism in a society just unleashing the enormous power of these possibilities, but also the urgent need for women to find a safe berth, to land somewhere, to relocate domestic life in an establishment other than their families of origin” (220).

This fundamental restructuring of kinship illuminates and finds evidentiary support in other kinds of fictional plots as well. An obsession with female sexual behavior, highlighted by frequent recourse to prostitute stories, emerges in the novel. Mothers become significant through their dramatic absence; aunt figures, however, populate novels as subtle alternatives. Literal and symbolic “aunts,” like the Countess in The Female Quixote, provide guidance and comfort for the heroine. The incest plot, whose popularity Pollak demonstrates, explores the dark side of the conjugal family. Gothic novels, with their notable reliance on this plot, offered the potential for a critique of the new system by exposing the sinister degree to which certain individual men gained so much power over families.

Perry’s important book brings history and fiction together in innovative ways. Her thesis is compelling and memorable: Novel Relations bristles with information and insight. The links between economic change and domestic change hold particular force here, although occasionally Perry’s generalizations about fiction and fictional genres seem too general, eliding literary peculiarity. Perry’s vigorous revisionist account also gives limited attention to potential signs of female resistance and empowerment that might also be part of the story, such as pre-capitalist forms of patriarchy and injustice. Communities, arguably, can prove oppressive as well as supportive. Did women, for example, suffer less abuse in earlier periods, or did they lack the resources to register certain kinds of treatment as abuse, even to themselves? What finally are the stakes, as Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (The Imaginary Puritan) have asked in their analysis of the debate between Lawrence Stone (arguing for improvement) and Peter Laslett (arguing for decline), in historical narratives charting gains and losses in family structure and support?

Such questions, however, suggest how much more thinking we have left to do in this area. Novel Relations already offers the most comprehensive analysis of shifting family structures in this period than any other I can think of to date, and both Perry and Pollack point the field in productive new directions.