- “Lifelong Soulmates?”:The Sibling Bond in Nineteenth-Century Fiction
“‘I love him better than my own life,’ I said. ‘I would be thankful to sacrifice every hour of my existence to him’” (269). These words, passionately spoken by the eponymous heroine of Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s novel Ursula (1858), represent a view of siblinghood (albeit extreme) likely to trouble our interpretation of the Victorian family and mark its fundamental distance from modern understandings of family. Such is Ursula’s devotion that while acknowledging there are many kinds of love in the world, she knows only that “a sister’s love for a brother may make earth a Paradise” (269). Although her passion for her brother Roger is shown to be unhealthy, it was by no means uncommon, especially in the fiction of earnest churchwomen, such as Sewell and Charlotte M. Yonge. The point, perhaps, for readers of Victorian fiction and biography is that the sister-brother relationship was widely represented in the language of infatuation. The longest family relationship of many people’s lives, it was also the most flexible and ambiguous, the “safest” in some ways, while hazardous in others, and the most open to misinterpretation. An adult brother and sister taking a walk together with children might in reality be an aunt and uncle with nieces and nephews, but to casual observers, they looked no different from a husband and wife with their own offspring.
Early to mid-Victorian novels swarm with surplus brothers and sisters. One well-known example from Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (1839), endows all but two of the leading characters (Smike and Madeline Bray) with at least one sibling. Minor characters are quite gratuitously given brothers and sisters, who make the most fleeting appearances, such as Mortimer, brother of the dressmaker, Miss Knag, and Tim Linkinwater’s sister. The Cheeryble twins eventually disclose that they were going to marry a pair of sisters (one was Madeline Bray’s mother) until one died and the other couple dissolved, cheated of a double sibling match. Dickens, at this early stage of his career, evidently saw siblings as an integral part of one’s identity—both positive and negative—deploying them as second selves, jealous enemies, or supernumerary multiples, as with the Kenwigs sisters, mundane, pigtailed parodies (perhaps) of the mythic Five Sisters of York. Every sibling in this novel seems to have his or her contrasting counterpart: the “good brother/evil brother” model of traditional fairy tales is embodied in Ralph and Nicholas Nickleby (the hero’s father); redeemed by the heroic, romantic ideal of Kate and Nicholas; and in turn, caricatured by the comic grotesques Fanny and Wackford Squeers. Elsewhere, Dickens’s sibling enemies, often separated by significant age gaps or a different parent (as with Fred and Nell Trent, or Oliver Twist and Monks), constitute a particularly sinister threat as “the enemy within,” the bond being genetically indissoluble, a part of oneself that will never go away. [End Page 54]
This unavoidable, lifelong sibling tie, which persists through estrangement, death, or disguised identity, constantly challenges definitions of the Victorian nuclear family in an unresolved interrogation of its shifting boundaries. As Leonore Davidoff indicates in Thicker than Water: Siblings and their Relations 1780–1920 (2012), there was even a significant culture of engagement with dead brothers and sisters—both those who were known and the ghosts of those who died before the advent of later siblings. Already swamped by brothers and sisters, Victorian children, both in real life and fiction, repeatedly conjured more. Both Ibbotson sisters in Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook (1839), Theodora Martindale in Yonge’s Heartsease (1854), and Sophia Kendal (known as Sophy) in Yonge’s The Young Stepmother (1861) fantasize about dead brothers who might have been their soulmate: “If baby had lived,” Hester Ibbotson recalls, “he would now have been our companion,—growing into the stead of all other friends to us” (21). Sophy, in The Young Stepmother, similarly adores the dead twin of her surviving brother Gilbert, while Theodora—jealous of her living brother Arthur’s new wife—still mourns the exclusive sibling partnership she might have had with a brother dead in infancy: “If he had lived...