- Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf
How close is too close? As Mary Jean Corbett's recent study of family ties provocatively attests, this question hinges on shifting and contested definitions of what constitutes kin. In Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, Corbett takes up a dazzling array of alternatives to the exogamous heterosexual marriage plot often staged by critics of nineteenth-century literature and culture. Pushing past the paradigm of heterosexual exchange, Corbett aligns her critical project with those of Sharon Marcus and Kathy Psomiades,1 similarly insisting that we recover a more expansive model for marriage and kinship formation. Her book makes an important contribution to this exciting conversation in gender and feminist studies by focusing on patterns of intimacy and assault within the family. Rather than looking outward toward plots of romance between strangers, Family Likeness suggests that familiarity often bred familiality.
Corbett finds that for many nineteenth-century English men and women, endogamous, intrafamilial marriage offered a desirable alternative to forming new alliances. But "family" itself was a messy and multivalent term. Ranging from what we now think of as nuclear units to large, extended networks of kin, it also included adoptive relations, marriages believed by many to make "one flesh" out of two people, and blood ties increasingly seen in terms of biological inheritance. In heated attempts to identify and police familial borders, commentators in Victorian anthropology, [End Page 386] sociology, and the law debated definitions of incest. These definitions—which, at mid century, made it possible for first cousins to marry each other but prohibited a widower from marrying his deceased wife's sister—underscore the extent to which "family" was never the fixed form to which twenty-first-century conservative politicians chart a return. Historically constructed and repeatedly revised, "family" (like "incest") drew on Victorian discourses of religion, racial science, and class difference. By treating incest as the product of working-class overcrowding (p. 12), for instance, nineteenth-century writers separated it from elite practices of endogamy, thereby "secur[ing] the status of middle-class sexual morality" (p. 14).
Family Likeness successfully defamiliarizes a recognizable lineup of primarily but not entirely canonical female voices (Jane Austen, Harriet Martineau, Felicia Skene, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Virginia Woolf). Fanny Price's marriage to her cousin Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park becomes, in chapter two, not simply a conservative, regressive strategy for excluding strangers but a potentially liberating way for a woman, removed from the opportunities and perils of the exogamous marriage market, to "bestow . . . her heart and her allegiance" independently, as "an active, responsible subject" (pp. 54, 55).2 Each chapter of Corbett's book provides nuanced readings of a single work or two, while moving efficiently and fluidly among several others. Fanny's marriage is thrown into relief by the different choices and family models made by other Austen heroines, who are nevertheless shown to share more with Fanny than is generally assumed.
Scrupulously researched, generously cited, and thoroughly engaging, Family Likeness examines, through each author, a different model of family relations—alliances among cousins, marriage with the deceased wife's sister, adoption, interbreeding, blended and fictive families, intra-generational bonds—to chart the options available for imagining and constructing family in the years leading up to the legislation that frames the book's discussion. In 1907 and 1908, as the first and seventh chapters remind us, the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act and the Punishment of Incest Act, respectively, redefined family as a blood relation in matters of marriage and incest. From Austen to Woolf, then, Corbett's case studies "mak[e] space . . . for alternatives to the dominant story of the exogamous heterosexual plot, the triumph of companionate marriage, and the installation of the nuclear family as a hegemonic institution" (p. 22). Intense attractions to sameness, "far from being some marked deviation from a nineteenth-century English 'exogamous' norm, themselves constituted a significant norm...