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Reviews/Comptes rendus Ellen Pollak. Incest and the English Novel, 1684-1814. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 280pp. US$39.95. ISBN 0-80187-204-9. Ellen Pollak's outstanding study challenges two influential accounts ofincest and modernity that have shaped contemporary literary studies. The first, modelled on Romantic definitions ofdesire and literary history, downplays the significance of incest as a cultural concern before the advent of Gothic fiction and Romantic subjectivity. The second, drawing on twentíeth-century psychoanalytic and anthropological theories, defines incest as a universal truth unrelated to the contingencies ofhistorical specificity or ideology. That Pollak so successfully debunks both of these accounts speaks to the importance ofher book, which certainly will shape future discussions ofits subject. Pollak identifies prose fiction ofthe long eighteenth century and twentiethcentury accounts of human nature and society as part of a narrative continuum with an Enlightenment epistemology that continues to shape our understanding ofincest. Pollak reveals how this "ongoing narrative tradition" (11) provides us with access to a number ofincest's cultural determinants— its link to political and religious discourses, for example—as well as to the history of a long-cherished cultural myth: that incest is transgressive, liberatory , and universal. Pollak argues the opposite: that both incitements to and prohibitions against incest maintain sexual and racial hierarchies and that cultural attitudes towards incest are as arbitrary and contingent as they need to be in order to maintain those hierarchies. The English novel served, she claims, as the place where an emergent ideology of "natural" gender asymmetries and their attendant incestuous desires found its fullest expression, its influence bolstered by the explosion ofprint culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 17, Number 3, April 2005 552 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION 17:3 Drawing on Foucault's reading of systems of alliance and discourses of sexuality in the early modern period, Pollak shows how incest emerged as "the model and limit ofdesire" (15) at a time when an enormous transformation of class and kinship structures was underway in England. In a detailed and engaging history of the relationship between cultural attitudes towards incest and marriage regulations, Pollak places gender, rather than class, at the heart of English developments from Henry VIII onward. Henry VIIl's political motivations in seeking a divorce from his first wife in order to secure his succession in the heir carried by Anne Bullen led to fierce theological debates around Levitical marriage prohibitions, debates rendered more complex by the anticlerical tradition (and its political permutations) that informed challenges to religious orthodoxies in the period. Later, these debates were further complicated by the positive inflections granted to natural law discourses by eighteenth-century authors, a revaluation that allowed incest to appear an affiliate ofNature. Pollak draws on a broad range ofarchival resources to document this history, includingjuridical tracts, biblical commentary, and the popular press. Even while tracing the complex and often contradictory logics at work in these cultural debates, Pollak remains focused on the organizing principles at work in the range ofdiscourses she covers: that is, the imperatives ofsexual exchange and English national ethnicity . Prior to incest, Pollak argues, is the axiom "that women are the natural sexual property ofmen"(58). Attendant on this assumption is the beliefthat, through the traffic in women, English racial purity can be preserved. Chapters 3 to 7 provide readings of English novels that reflect the close imbrication ofincest, desire, and male prerogative. Highlighting the different roles that incest plays in men's and women's social scripts, Pollak analyses Aphra Behn's Love-letters between a Nobleman and HhSister (1684-87), reading the novel's critique of the masculine rivalries that structured Restoration libertinism through the lens of the incest narrative that the novel's title announces. Reading against the grain of a critical tendency to celebrate Silvia's incestuous longings for her brother-in-law as subversive, Pollak demonstrates the extent to which the novel's anti-hero, Philander, uses the idea ofincestuous longing as freedom from patriarchal constraint to tighten his hold over Silvia. Pollak's critical perspicacity comes across in her brilliant analysis of the impotence that Philander experiences as he is poised to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 551-554
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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