- Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf
As familiar and well-mined a topic as the Victorian marriage plot is, Mary Jean Corbett's fascinating study allows us to view it afresh by attending to the "cultural meanings" (175) attached to incest in nineteenth-century Britain. Our critical tradition, Corbett suggests, has overemphasized both the cultural injunction to exogamy in the period and the generic plot of "romance between strangers" (vii). But in an era when the distinction between consanguinity and affinity (relationships created by marriage) was contested, affective bonds between siblings and cousins informed conjugal bonds in powerful and complex ways. In compelling readings of narratives depicting what she terms "marriage within the family" (34) in such forms as marriage with a cousin, a deceased wife's sister, or an adoptive sibling, Corbett encourages us to rethink not only Victorian novels but also our own normative models of family life.
Corbett approaches incest as an "historically variable concept" (68) that in the Victorian context, connoted "a different set of perceived transgressions [End Page 244] than we associate with the term today" (7). She charts its changing valences and the practical forms it assumed throughout the nineteenth century, tracking in particular the way its definition gradually disentangled biological and affinal forms of relationship defining incest as well as the complicated and counterintuitive overlaps between concerns about incest and about the practice that would appear to be its exogamous opposite, miscegenation (a relationship she makes especially visible in a reading of Wuthering Heights). Central to Corbett's reconstruction of this history is the debate over the law that prohibited a widower from marrying his sister-in-law. Repeal of the prohibition with the passage of the Deceased Wife's Marriage Act in 1907 was a watershed: decriminalizing affinal incest, it "effectively enabled the institution of legal penalties for consanguineal incest" a year later and paved the way for our own cultural understanding of the term (4). But for the ban's Victorian proponents and opponents alike, Corbett argues, the affective charge of the wife's unmarried sister reveals an "ambiguity in the boundaries of the family" (59) that is central to what she defines as "nineteenth-century middle-class incests" (19).
In that ambiguity, Corbett finds openness and possibility. In a surprising and persuasive reading of Mansfield Park, for instance, she invites us to imagine "the force and scope the now-anomalous alternative plot of marriage within the family had for Austen's original audience" (55) and argues that Austen's characters "have opportunities to maintain and extend kinship ties ... through the creation of second families not exclusively centered on the heterosexual couple and its offspring" (56). She locates a similar flexibility in Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, where the blended family formed by Dr. Gibson's remarriage and the figurative adoption of Molly Gibson by the Hamleys mediate the courtship plot in a way that suggests family relations are "not ... fixed or given ... [but rather] malleable, situational, and fungible ... [depending on] action more than essence" (148). Thus, while the literary trope of incest has generally been associated with contraction and enclosure, Corbett's approach identifies it with expansiveness and extension; this is perhaps the most revisionary aspect of her study.
Like the work of Sharon Marcus, whose Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England Corbett references several times, Family Likeness productively reframes the critical conversation around domestic fiction. Particularly impressive is Corbett's deft integration of the personal narrative—the affective dimension of the negotiation between first-family and conjugal bonds, the potential of "marriage within the family" to foster a woman's agency—with the cultural narrative whereby the "middle-class incests" depicted in the marriage plots she addresses were poised against and increasingly distinguished from working-class pathologies of family life (13). She considers fictional texts alongside legal, political, and scientific treatises that work through related problems: Henry Maine's anthropological account of adoption, for instance, frames Corbett's account of...