by Elsie B. Michie; pp. 303. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2011. $15.52 paper.
by Leonore Davidoff; pp. 449. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. $66.39 cloth.
by Valerie Sanders; pp. 246. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. $93.97 cloth.
In the more than two decades since the publication of Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall’s groundbreaking historical study Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (1987), the cultural meaning of kinship over the long nineteenth century has been radically redefined. Waning investment in Freudian psychoanalysis in the eighties and waxing interest [End Page 215] in Foucauldian New Historicism in the nineties provided a fertile context for the destabilization of Lawrence Stone’s formidable paradigm of the “rise of the nuclear family,” and a receptive atmosphere for the opening gambit of Family Fortunes: “If the focus shifts from individual nuclear families to the group as a whole, then it becomes evident how such patterns contributed to the survival and enhancement of the middle class, given the uncertain, even hostile, economic and demographic environment” (Davidoff and Hall 224–25). Denuded of psychoanalytic intensity and nuclear organization, the nineteenth-century family emerges as a more flexible and various network of alliances, and expands to include figures, feelings, and functions that once seemed extraneous to identity formation and English cultural development.
Following Davidoff and Hall, literary critics, historians, and, most powerfully, queer theorists revisited the family romance, extending the dramatis personae to players beyond the conventional familial triangle of the Oedipal story. Juliet Flower MacCannell and Lynn Hunt direct us to more nuanced and culturally specific definitions of “patriarchal” oppression by focusing on what MacCannell calls, in her book title, the “regime of the brother”; Helena Michie invites us to consider “sororophobia” as an affective and structural component of the female familial experience; and Anne McClintock instructs us to look at business partners and commercial affiliations for inscriptions of Victorian familialism rather than to the declining status of biological “filiation” in a period of widespread economic aggrandizement. “Forget the Name of the Father,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick famously insists in her 1993 book Tendencies, asking us instead to “think about your Uncles and Aunts” in order to redress both contemporary social and legal limitations placed on kinship and historical assumptions that have tended to define past families in the narrowest, nuclear sense (71). My own 2004 book participates in this reconsideration of the extended family, arguing that uncles are a familial trope endemic to narratives of social and economic exchange. Such extensions of the family circle have even reconfigured our understanding of the psychoanalytic trauma of incest. Critics such as Mary Jean Corbett, for example, have quite recently argued for contingent and “historically variable” definitions of incest within primarily middle-class family structures, encouraging a rereading of incest stories like Austen’s Mansfield Park and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights through a set of shifting perspectives on economic and racial miscegenation (68).
While the case may no longer need to be made that the nineteenth-century family was a porous and diverse unit, examples of its porousness and diversity are still forthcoming; indeed, each of the three recently published books I am reviewing here is underwritten by an ever-expanding definition of the extended family. Elsie Michie’s fascinating 2011 book on the Victorian heiress, The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James, is a case in point. While a book about heiresses may seem at first glance a topical outlier, Michie’s masterful readings of novels by Jane Austen, Frances and Anthony Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, and Henry James [End Page 216] persuasively argue that the “woman with money” is a fundamentally familial figure. While heiresses are too vulgar, too excessive, to be seamlessly absorbed into a mythology of the affective family, they are closely associated with endogamous patterns of family-making that mark kinship formation as a primarily economic impulse (Michie 21). Under...