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Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England by Adam Kuper (review)
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Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England. By Adam Kuper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. 296. $29.50 (cloth).

Adam Kuper’s widely researched and richly detailed account of British family networks demonstrates the high public stakes of marriage throughout the long nineteenth century. For the rising bourgeoisie he describes—“a status group” (8) consisting of industrialists, bankers, scientists, barristers, clergymen, and civil servants—endogamy signified not just safety but “characteristic” strategic planning (27). This book charts in painstaking and often witty particulars how the sexual decisions of individual families helped to shape the financial, political, and intellectual movements of the nation.

Incest and Influence adds to a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship on Victorian kinship practices that includes works by literary critics Ruth Perry and Mary Jean Corbett. It similarly suggests that endogamy rather than exogamy ruled the day. Victorians of the upper middle classes showed a distinct preference for practices now considered incestuous, such as cousin marriage: one nineteenth-century study Kuper mentions suggested that “‘cousin marriages are at least 3 times as frequent in our rank as in the lower!’” (18). Like Corbett, Kuper considers the popularity of cousin marriage and other forms of intimate alliances, such as two brothers marrying two sisters, in relation to mid-Victorian debates about marriage to a deceased wife’s sister (legalized in 1907), reminding us that what has counted as “incest” changed dramatically in the course of a hundred years. In part, this book contributes to Victorianists’ growing awareness that kinship itself, more than a stable set of practices, has evolved over time.

What Kuper adds to this valuable body of scholarship is both a larger sense of the structures undergirding individual cases of endogamous marriage and a more sustained look at the greater significance of these marital choices, immediately and over generations. Incest and Influence pieces together the networks of some of the most notable bourgeois clans of the long nineteenth century: the Darwins and Wedgwoods, the Rothschilds, the Clapham Sect, and the Bloomsbury Group. Each is a fascinating case study in the economics of endogamy; together, they present a vivid image of how multiple families achieved significant accomplishments through similar alliance formations. At times, I miss Kuper’s wise and humorous voice in the lists of family connections and choices—the evidence occasionally threatens to overwhelm the thesis—but readers will appreciate the thorough account and helpful diagrams, which visually map out the generations of intermarriage he describes.

Demonstrating the shift from theological to secular perspectives on marriage in Victorian legal debates, the first part of Kuper’s study reveals how many Victorians themselves were deeply aware of and interested in the ramifications of unions between close kin. Important to the marriage [End Page 345] plots of such diverse authors as Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, cousin marriage was also the subject of scientific and medical scrutiny. Charles Darwin’s son George, for instance, compiled statistics comparing the parentage of patients in mental asylums with those in the general population, concluding that “as far as insanity and idiocy go, no evil has been shown to accrue from consanguineous marriages” (98). Indeed, as the second part of Kuper’s study reveals, such marriages frequently supported wide-ranging success instead.

Incest and Influence’s breadth is one of its many strengths; it traces scientific, legal, religious, political, and financial developments with similar care. At the same time, however, I am less satisfied with the book’s cursory account of literary depictions of cousin marriage, primarily because it misses what for me makes the other pieces of Kuper’s argument so very compelling: a sustained account of generations of strategic and overlapping alliance formation for specific ends.

Kuper’s discussion of these generations goes well beyond the general sense that “marriages reinforced business connections” (112). Showing how the prosperity of the Rothschild bank depended upon its family “forg[ing] new mechanisms of alliance, inheritance, and succession, honed to the specific requirements of their very unusual multinational enterprise” (119), Kuper describes their “half-century of sustained intermarriage” as a “kinship strategy” (121). Of course, among the groups he traces, Jews and Quakers, as members...