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  • Family and Modernity:New Perspectives on the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
  • Mytheli Sreenivas (bio)
Rachel G. Fuchs . Contested Paternity: Constructing Families in Modern France. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008. xii + 353pp. ISBN 0-8018-8832-8.
Rochona Majumdar . Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2009. xiii+ 343pp. ISBN 0-8223-4478-0.
Kenda Mutongi . Worries of the Heart: Widows, Family, and Community in Kenya. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. xi + 256pp. ISBN 0-26-55419-8.
Claudia Nelson . Family Ties in Victorian England. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2007. xi + 196pp. ISBN 0-275-98697-7.
Natasha Zaretsky . No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. xii + 320pp.ISBN 978-0-8078-3094-9.

These five books examine the history of families, and the place of families within history, over the last two centuries. Each demonstrates that, although the family occupies an ostensibly "private" space in the modern era, families—as represented in discourse, as codified in law, as sites of lived experience—are ever-present in public negotiations about gender, class status, citizenship, and national identity. To develop these claims, all five authors draw from a very wide-ranging group of sources, including ethnography and oral history, legislation and jurisprudence, wedding invitations and matrimonial advertisements, and prose fiction and poetry. Extending beyond the boundaries of state-sponsored or other standard archives, these texts suggest how researchers can make creative and innovative use of sources to shed light on families—and in the process, illuminate broader trajectories of historical change in politics, culture, law, and economy.

Rochona Majumdar's Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal investigates the history of arranged marriage (unions "negotiated by [End Page 188] families") among educated, middle-class (bhadralok) Bengali Hindus from the 1870s to the 1950s (2). These marriages were not a vestige of tradition, as is commonly assumed, but according to Majumdar were "very much a part of Indian modernity and modernization" (1). Families had of course been involved in marriage negotiations prior to colonial rule, and they often relied on matchmakers (ghataks) whose expertise was rooted in knowledge about lineages within a subcaste. By the late nineteenth century, however, bhadralok families began to place matrimonial advertisements in Bengali newspapers. The circulation of printed advertisements enabled families to widen the circle of endogamy beyond the subcaste, and reliance on the ghatak's expertise in lineages gave way to new criteria of income and western education for judging the suitability of grooms, and of physical appearance and domestic skills for brides. Within this developing marriage market, dowry (property, goods, or cash transferred from the bride's family to the groom's family) became an important currency for brides' families seeking suitable grooms.

Faced with the increasing commercialization of marriage, middle-class Bengalis sought to define what constituted "good taste" in the conduct of weddings. Based on an extraordinary collection of wedding ephemera—invitations, photographs, wedding poetry, jewelry designs—Majumdar tells an engaging tale of how some bhadralok eschewed "waste" and "excess" while reconstituting subjectivity. Shifts occurred via seemingly small negotiations about the arrangement of a wedding portrait or the appropriateness of particular forms of clothing or jewelry. Many of these negotiations centered on the bride and groom. Wedding portraits, for instance, highlighted the conjugal couple rather than the family, and wedding poetry referenced husbands and wives. Majumdar argues, however, that this "image of the couple was firmly set in and circumscribed by the context and ideal of the reconstituted joint family" (127). The reconfiguration of couple and family brought together notions of romance and companionate love associated with the former and linked them to forms of hierarchy and devotion embodied in the latter.

The book's final chapter brings readers into the postcolonial era and shifts the focus from Bengal towards an India-wide context. Majumdar suggests that the codification of laws governing marriage and inheritance among Hindus, known collectively as the Hindu Code, crystallized the developing relationship between arranged marriage and the joint family. She locates a tension between the Code...


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