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  • Lesbian Incest as Queer Kinship:Michael Field and the Erotic Middle-Class Victorian Family
  • Carolyn Tate (bio)

This interpretation of the deployment of alliance and that of sexuality in the form of the family allows us to understand a number of facts: that since the eighteenth century the family has become an obligatory locus of affects, feelings, love; that sexuality has its privileged point of development in the family; that for this reason sexuality is “incestuous” from the start.

—Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (1990)

Incest is commonly regarded as a universal and trans-historical taboo, yet scholars have recently reminded us that what constitutes incest and the cultural responses to those who engage in incestuous relationships are historically contingent. In particular, the Victorian period was a time of intense anxiety and ambivalence about incest. Incest was at the center of the Victorian era’s most contentious legislative debates even though sexual contact between family members was technically legal. Victorian journalists and social reformers reviled the “single room” conditions of the poor and the subsequent sexual debauchery they believed was inevitable in such cramped quarters,1 while members of the middle classes defended their right to marry cousins and deceased wives’ sisters.2

Though our current understanding of incest is heavily influenced by a feminist analysis that connects incest to patriarchal privilege,3 I believe that thinking of incest in terms of class privilege will help us make sense of the contradictory values strategically deployed to defend some forms of erotic family affection and vilify others. For the bourgeois Victorian family, privilege proliferated intimacies. Recent studies have documented the erotic dynamics of the bourgeois Victorian family, helping scholars separate Victorian rhetoric from reality. Adam Kuper’s Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England (2009), Mary Jean Corbett’s Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf (2008), and Claudia Nelson’s Family Ties in Victorian England (2007) have all considered the complex ways in which socioeconomic class affected intimate family relations. Perhaps most strikingly, they all concur that even though the Victorian bourgeoisie were [End Page 181] repulsed by the abuses they thought were rampant in working-class homes, they protected their own right to erotic family relations.

Though these recent studies recover “what can be recovered of the history of incest as nineteenth-century middle-class people knew it, lived it, argued over it, and redefined it, for themselves” (Corbett 4), they all allude to but fail to take into account how queer forms of incest both troubled and reinforced bourgeois family values. The lack of queer incest narratives in recent Victorian-studies publications is perplexing considering that the period offers the most public and prominent example of queer incestuous coupling, that of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, an aunt and her niece who lived, loved, and worked together under the joint pseudonym Michael Field. Though the sexual nature of their relationship has been both debated and actively recuperated by scholars interested in Victorian women’s poetry, romantic friendship, and emergent late-Victorian lesbian identity,4 the incestuous nature of the relationship has “been so politely avoided that it is something of an elephant in the maiden-auntly parlor” (Thomas 328). Yet, Bradley and Cooper offer us a rare opportunity to investigate queer incest within the milieu of bourgeois late-Victorian England. Though critical studies of incest have oscillated between actual cases of family eroticism and literary representations that suggest a certain cultural fascination with incest, Bradley and Cooper offer us both biography and literature as mediums for thinking through, and hopefully rethinking, incest during the Victorian period.

By resituating the importance of incest in the lives and to the work of Bradley and Cooper, I hope to stage two interventions. First, I want to offer a new reading of Victorian Sappho. Yopie Prins has helpfully synthesized how “Sappho of Lesbos became a name with multiple significations in the course of the nineteenth century” (3). These significations range from Swinburne’s sadomasochistic lesbian lover, rendered through a male homoerotic fantasy of female sexuality in “Anactoria,” to Dr. Henry Wharton’s pseudo-scholarly desexualization of Sappho to make her the model of...


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pp. 181-199
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