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Family Likeness

Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf

Mary Jean Corbett

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 3-6


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pp. v-vi

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-xiv

This book argues that potential or actual marriage between women and men within nineteenth-century families — whether involving cousins, in-laws, or figurative adoptees — represents a compelling alternative to the romance between strangers that most critics have taken to be the paradigm for the heterosexual marriage plot. ...

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Chapter 1. Making and Breaking the Rules: An Introduction

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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 ...

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Chapter 2. “Cousins in Love, &c.” in Jane Austen

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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, ...

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Chapter 3. Husband, Wife, and Sister: Making and Unmaking the Early Victorian Family

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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 ...

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Chapter 4. Orphan Stories: Adoption and Affinity in Charlotte Brontë

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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 ...

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Chapter 5. Intercrossing, Interbreeding, and The Mill on the Floss

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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. ...

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Chapter 6. Fictive Kinship and Natural Affinities in Wives and Daughters

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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. ...

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Chapter 7. Virginia Woolf and Victorian “Incests”

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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,” ...

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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. ...


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pp. 211-242


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pp. 243-258


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pp. 259-264

E-ISBN-13: 9780801459955
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801447075

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1