- Thicker than Water: Siblings and Their Relations, 1780–1920 by Leonore Davidoff, and: Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History by C. Dallett Hemphill
It is difficult to historicize something as fundamental—and until recently, nearly universal—as the experience of siblinghood. But C. Dallett Hemphill and Leonore Davidoff both argue persuasively in these contrasting yet complementary works that intense involvement in sibling networks was particularly characteristic of the early modern era and the long nineteenth century. By the seventeenth century, and even more so by the early nineteenth century, declining child mortality, improving life expectancy, and changing social values that emphasized lateral family relationships conspired to create sizeable sibling networks that sustained men and women in Britain and America throughout their lives.
Hemphill and Davidoff reach similar conclusions while examining evidence from different sides of the Atlantic and approaching their subject matter in different ways. In Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History, Hemphill briefly considers family relationships in early modern England before turning her attention to sibling relations in colonial America, Revolutionary America, and the antebellum United States. Her major sources include letters, diaries, family portraits, and popular fiction. Middling and well-to-do northeasterners dominate the narrative—perhaps inevitably, as they are the ones who left the most written evidence of their experiences. But Hemphill is keenly attentive to regional and class differences and considers sibling and sibling-like relationships among African American slaves, Southern planters, frontier families, and Native Americans at several points throughout the book. [End Page 523]
Davidoff’s research focus in Thicker than Water: Siblings and Their Relations, 1780–1920 is more loosely defined: she examines sibling relationships in the long nineteenth century, mainly among the middle classes and mainly in England, though with a one-chapter excursion to Central Europe to examine sibling dynamics in the Freud family. Davidoff’s core sources—letters, diaries, family photographs, and demographic data—are similar to Hemphill’s, but she places more emphasis on quantitative analysis and psychological theory than Hemphill does. Davidoff devotes about a third of Thicker than Water to examining knotty topics such as incest and close marriage (that is, marriage between blood or affined relatives) through the lens of renowned families such as the Wordsworths, the Darwin-Wedgwood clan, the Gladstones, and the Freuds. While these chapters illuminate the individual family stories, it’s not clear that these families’ experiences were widely representative, and the emphasis Davidoff places on them tilts the content of Thicker than Water towards the unusual and the deviant. In contrast, Hemphill’s Siblings focuses more consistently on normative, widespread family patterns.
Despite the difference in their approaches, Davidoff’s and Hemphill’s conclusions resonate with one another. This resonance begins with an expansive definition of siblinghood. Davidoff and Hemphill depict sibling relations in an era in which women routinely bore children from marriage until menopause—or death—intervened. The resulting families were large but not necessarily huge: Hemphill estimates that the average early modern English adult had four siblings and that the average completed family size in the early national United States was six to seven children. Davidoff focuses on very large families but notes that only a minority of nineteenth-century Britons grew up in them. Yet, as Davidoff and Hemphill both point out, sibling networks extended well beyond the confines of full siblinghood. Parental death and remarriage introduced half siblings and stepsiblings into the mix; the marriages of siblings introduced siblings-in-law; and aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins who were close in age often functioned as quasi siblings. Thus, studies of sibling relations almost inevitably evolve into more expansive studies of kin networks because their subjects understood siblinghood in an inclusive, expansive manner. (The same pattern is evident in Lorri Glover’s All Our Relations: Blood Ties and Emotional Bonds among the South Carolina Gentry , which began as a dissertation on sibling relationships and...