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  • Cousin Marriage, Then and Now
  • Mary Jean Corbett (bio)

Citing francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius (1869), Virginia Woolf’s narrator in Night and Day (1919) reports that the antecedents of the novel’s heroine had so often “married and intermarried” that they formed a multi-generational network of “authority and prominence” (32). Noel Annan subsequently called the actual model for this fictional formation “the intellectual aristocracy,” in which “certain families gain position and influence through [End Page 74] persistent endogamy,” among them the Wedgwoods, Darwins, Trevelyans, Stracheys, and Woolf’s own Stephen relations (254). Considering the late eighteenth century origins of “persistent endogamy” among men differentiated from others on the basis of their religious nonconformity, their shared commitment to abolition, and/or their long service in colonial administration, Annan asks, “when these sons in turn came to marry, what was more natural than to choose a wife from the families of their fathers’ friends whose fortune and upbringing matched their own” (245)? Examining a broader sample, including those bankers and industrialists who accumulated and consolidated capital through cousin marriage, the historian of anthropology Adam Kuper has estimated that among “the great bourgeois clans of nineteenth-century England,” “more than one marriage in ten was with a first or second cousin” (Incest 18). And in Thicker than Water: Siblings and Their Relations, 1780–1920, feminist historian Leonore Davidoff builds on the latest research to argue that “capitalist and industrial developments were accompanied by more, not less, reliance on extended kin” (26–27). The practice of intermarriage between and within families, carried into the second, third, or fourth generation, thus promoted cousin unions, conferring the “powerful competitive advantage” of “sustained alliances” on particular extended families in different sectors of nineteenth-century life (Kuper, “Changing” 721).

Most scholars today would probably amend Annan’s suggestion that intermarriages between families of similar “fortune and upbringing” were “natural”: adopting the practice was for some, like the Rothschilds, a conscious and deliberate strategy to advance their shared interests, and the descendants of these unions, as a result, succeeded in moving closer to the centre of English society than their parents or grandparents had been (Incest 117–25). But, then again, we may also dispute the attribution of naturalness because almost nothing appears more unnatural today, in a Western context, than marrying a cousin. The reaction against this form of endogamy has resulted from multiple factors, including greater opportunities for women to make life choices that are independent of familial influence and interest—opportunities that Night and Day, however, obliquely attributes to the practice of intermarriage that shapes its heroine’s Victorian family history.

Dissecting features of what sounds suspiciously like an old boys’ network, the narrator asserts that “no very great merit is required to put you into a position where it is easier on the whole to be eminent than obscure” (32)—as long as “you” are one of the contemporary inheritors of the professional capital that the intimate bonds of intermarriage create. One’s individual merits aside, knowing the right people makes all the difference for the sons and grandsons of the eminent, who can count on cousins in high places:

one finds them at the tops of professions, with letters after their names; they sit in luxurious public offices, with private secretaries attached to them; they write solid books in dark [End Page 75] covers issued by the presses of the two great universities, and when one of them dies … another of them writes his biography


as did Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, after the death of his brother James Fitzjames. Although Galton, Annan, and even Kuper note only in passing the biological agency of women in this state of affairs, Woolf’s own privileged relationship to this largely but not exclusively masculinist structure, created by the “competitive advantage” cousinhood confers, induces her to give more sustained attention to gender. “Even the daughters, even in the nineteenth century,” the narrator avows, “are apt to become people of importance—philanthropists and educationalists if they are spinsters, and the wives of distinguished men if they marry” (32–33). While the second “if” clause designates the standard place for nineteenth-century middle-class women...


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pp. 74-78
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