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  • Introduction:Extending Families
  • Kelly Hager (bio) and Talia Schaffer (bio)

We call this issue “Extending Families” as both a description and a promise.1 The title describes what seems to us one of the most important characteristics of recent work on the Victorian family: attention to the fact that Victorian families were larger and longer than our own, comprising multiple generations and extensive kinship networks, not to mention servants, boarders, apprentices, students, governesses, nurses, and other connections. To understand how the Victorians experienced family, we have to relinquish our assumption that the small nuclear family was normative. As George K. Behlmer has pointed out, “in 1851 just 36 percent of households contained a married couple, at least one child, and no one else” (26). We hope to extend the idea of family to enable readers to appreciate what it felt like to live within such an extended network.

“Extending Families” is a promise, too, that the pieces in this issue will push against conventionally accepted notions of familial roles and their associations. It perhaps goes without saying that the celebration of heteronormative domesticity associated with the Angel in the House and Ruskin’s domestic queens was always more ideal than actual. But this issue says it and documents it, offering concrete historical examples that broaden and adjust our sense of Victorian family life. Specifically, “Extending Families” maps new ideas of the family in the nineteenth century, including explorations of adoption (a relationship that was not legalized in Britain until 1926), unions that function as alternative models to marriage, sibling relationships, perceived threats to the family, family formation in a colonial context, the effect of changing marriage laws, and cultural directives about proper romantic behaviour. We offer “Extending Families” as a snapshot of some of the most innovative work being done today on nineteenth-century family formations and ideologies in Britain, work that encourages us to think of family as a permeable, flexible, and shifting configuration.

In Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748–1818 (2004), Ruth Perry anticipates our desire to extend our notion of the family when she asserts that “social historians and literary critics often pass over sibling relationships as irrelevant to the ‘real story,’ which they assume to be the development of the conjugal family with its emphasis on romantic love between husbands and wives and strong emotional bonds between parents and children” (147). Perry’s account of the family encourages us to read the family as an institution that centres on figures we might not expect. To that end and in that spirit, then, this issue works to include the subjects that are typically excluded—the celibate couple, the family pet, aged (grand) parents, [End Page 7] the regimental family, the domestic servant, murderous wives—and to resist the teleological narrative (and norm) of the (heteronormative) courtship plot.

a history of family studies

Studies of the history of the family in Britain famously begin with Lawrence Stone’s flawed but groundbreaking The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800 (1977). Stone argues that the family transitioned from an extended clan of coldly indifferent (or even actively cruel) members to a loving, small nuclear family due to the rise of affective individualism in the seventeenth century.2 Thus, asserts Stone, loving marriages and caring child-rearing began with the modern period. However, it is clear that familial tenderness and marital love have existed for as long as we have had literary and historical records. Stone argues for his vision of a triumphal progression toward a superior present situation by imposing his own beliefs on a far messier history, selectively choosing sources and ignoring contradictory material.3

In spite of its problematic evidence and dubious progressivism, Stone’s book did set up a grand narrative, a breathtaking sweep of history from the medieval to the modern period, that captured scholars’ attention. As Helen Berry and Elizabeth Foyster write, “in his selective use of sources, Stone was less than a model historian, but his hypothesis about the evolution of the modern family has proved to be ‘good to think with’” (8). Today, most historians of the family accept that the premodern family...


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