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  • Excluding Heiresses
  • Elsie B. Michie (bio)

In the nineteenth century, both anthropologists and novelists celebrated the rise of what Lawrence Stone calls “companionate marriage” (217) and Ronald Trumbach “an egalitarian or domestic system of household relationships” (3). For anthropologists, modern society marked the simultaneous “emergence of private property and the monogamous family form” (Engels 7). As the Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer explains, “complete individualization of ownership is an accompaniment of industrial progress” (Evolution 205) and “the development of the conception of property had much to do with development of the marital relation” (Principles 1: 645). Stressing the emotional rewards of this development, nineteenth-century novelists infused their narratives “with a sort of atmosphere which is not incapable of being condensed into the moral that people ought to marry for love and not for money” (“Unsigned” 77). Both social science and fiction emphasized [End Page 50] people’s increasing freedom to do what they liked with what they owned and to marry whom they pleased. However, these narratives included an exception to the general rule: heiresses were not allowed the freedoms offered to others. Daughters who inherited in place of sons marked the limit of how far the nineteenth-century family could extend its boundaries.

Victorian anthropology had a deep emotional investment in showing that the modern patrilineal family emerged out of primitive cultures that had no conception of private property and held women in common. It was particularly interested in the watershed moment when tribes settled down and differentiated themselves from other tribes. As the American anthropologist Lewis Morgan explains, “When field agriculture had demonstrated that the whole surface of the earth could be made the subject of property owned by individuals in severalty, and it was found that the head of the family became the natural center of accumulation, the new property career of mankind was inaugurated” (461). However, the consolidation of property within the family created a problem by making daughters as well as sons potential inheritors. If these propertied daughters were allowed to marry whomever they pleased, they “would transfer property from their own gens to that of their husband” (Morgan 464). As a result, the heiress’s freedom had to be curtailed; in her case, “the foundation of all gentile law was … violated and … the girl was not only permitted but ordered to marry within the gens, in order that her property should be retained for the gens” (Engels 132).

The difference anthropologists noted between daughters’ and sons’ relation to inheritance is recorded throughout the Victorian novel. We see it in both George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Anthony Trollope’s multi-plot meditation on marriage and divorce, He Knew He Was Right (1869). In The Mill on the Floss, after Mr. Tulliver loses the mill, his daughter, Maggie, cannot work to overcome that bankruptcy in the same way that his son, Tom, does. Similarly, in one of the many subplots of He Knew He Was Right, daughters are not allowed the same freedom as sons. The heiress Miss Stanbury thinks about leaving her property first to her nephew Hugh and later to his sister Dorothy. But Dorothy is not free to reject her aunt’s patronage as her brother is. It would be easy to read these examples as simply instances of the general workings of gender in Victorian society. As daughters, neither Maggie nor Dorothy can obtain the jobs that allow sons to bear a different relation to both bankruptcy and inheritance. Yet this difference, though a reflection of history, also reiterates the tension underscored in anthropological accounts of the development of culture between sons who are allowed freedom of choice in their relation to both property and marriage, and daughters who are deprived of it. As Victorian anthropologist John McLennan explains in Primitive Marriage (1865), “The earliest violation of the rule of exogamy would appear to have been called for in the case of female heiresses” (113), who were compelled to marry endogamously in order to ensure that wealth remained within the family and the gens. [End Page 51]

Both Eliot’s and Trollope’s novels associate the daughter with forms of endogamy. Attracted to the wealthy Stephen...


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pp. 50-53
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