- Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748–1818
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England the primary basis of kinship shifted from consanguineal ties to conjugal and affinal ties. The disciplines of history, anthropology, and sociology (with literary studies in hot pursuit and in some cases taking the lead) have located this movement amid the many socio-political changes of the period and traced its myriad causes, consequences, and correlates. Indeed, in most cases it is hardly possible to determine causal priority in related social transformations. For [End Page 229] instance, the decay of consanguinity accompanied the rise of strict settlement, where family estates were often bound to lines of patrilineal descent. Entail seems in one sense compensatory for the loss of aristocratic modes of landholding, but the shift to conjugal kinship also helped break down the right to inheritance previously vested in daughters and younger sons. The reformation of the family was implicated in the emergence of class-based social organization, new forms of property, practical figurations of nationality and community, the public/private division, individualism, sympathetic social bonds, the nuclear family, legally regulated marriage, industrialization and urbanization, new conceptions of labour, and new models of gender and childhood.
If this summation seems too broad and too well established to merit another rehearsal, the same sensation may strike the reader on first venturing into Ruth Perry's Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748–1818. That sensation, however, is soon replaced by a sense of the great ambition driving Perry's project, the magnitude of its coverage, and the comprehensive intellectual reach of its author. Perry marshals an immense body of scholarship and links it to an equally immense catalogue of literary works, mostly prose fiction, but also drama, periodicals, and poetry. Perry details the contours of this fundamental historical change in chapters focusing on women's inheritance; fathers and daughters; sibling relations; marriage, sexuality, and property; Arthur Young's scientific farming; and even "the importance of aunts." She situates her study between "cultural critics," who "often leave out the family, and place the individual directly in the field of immense national forces," and "family historians," who "have been oddly ahistorical, tracing connections simply between family structures and the personalities they foster" (13–14). This book engages, and in a sense anthologizes, the work of literary critics such as Mary Poovey, Catherine Gallagher, Nancy Armstrong, and many others, along with historians such as Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Lawrence Stone, Philippe Ariès, and more.
As a whole, the space Perry creates for herself falls more in the realm of social history than literary analysis. Few literary texts here earn a discussion that lasts longer than a page. More than once a brief suggestive analysis will leave the reader hoping for a longer one. With this tactic Perry takes on, consciously, the difficulties that face historicized literary studies: "Only by reading back and forth between literature and history can a critic get a feel for how a text symbolizes, transcends, or comments on its time ... fiction can function as magical thinking, wish-fulfillment, catharsis, or theatrical staging" (289). While no study is invalidated for indulging the urge to sidestep a long examination of the relationship between literature and history, this book repeatedly, if implicitly, raises the question without resolving it. The functions of fiction that Perry identifies are unexceptionable, but she tends to find her texts fulfilling [End Page 230] the wishes of a governing historico-cultural logic to the exclusion of the kind of specific interventions that literary works also embody.
In her chapter on fathers and daughters, for example, Perry glances at the case of Mary Blandy, a parricide, and notes that "most of those who wrote about the case, including [Henry] Fielding, assumed that Mary Blandy had been led astray by her unprincipled lover" (83). Contemporary commentators flattened the contours of Blandy's case: "[it] all went to show that romantic...