- The Problem with Brothers in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel
Why is the nineteenth-century English novel so much more comfortable with sisters than with brothers? Elinor and Marianne Dashwood can end Sense and Sensibility (1811) with "that constant communication [between Barton and Delaford] which strong family affection would naturally dictate" (380), and on the final pages of The Woman in White (1859), Marian can continue living with Laura and caring for her children. Yet brothers virtually never achieve such a harmonious coexistence at the close of an English novel. Russia's canonical novels are full of brothers—the Karamazov brothers (Dostoevsky), the Levin brothers (Tolstoy), and the Kirsanov brothers (Turgenev)—but in the English tradition, brothers have been relegated to the margins—either playing a minor role in canonical texts or featuring in lesser-known works. The same marginalization holds true in English scholarship, in which remarkably little has been written about the brother bond.
This essay argues that the treatment of brothers in nineteenth-century English novels and their absence from critical scholarship actually stem from the same source: they offer a challenge to the linear, diachronic conception of the family cherished by the English novel and its dominant theories, inserting lateral complications into a story that has been told as essentially vertical.1 In so doing, they reveal the stable family model underlying this conception as more vulnerable than we might like to believe. And further, by laying bare the cultural conditioning of this model, they threaten the hegemony of theories of the novel that have not acknowledged their indebtedness to a specifically English nineteenth-century family structure. The essay will begin with an analysis of the way social and legal definitions of the family shape plot possibilities and then offer detailed readings of novels by George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charlotte Brontë to explore the different ways in which Victorian authors grappled with the problems of the brother plot.
According to Barry McCrea, "The ideas of narrative and family are so closely interwoven that it is hard to separate them. Narrative and family both attempt to plot a relationship between what came before and what comes after; both organize the unknowable jumble of events and people who preceded us into a coherent array of precedence, sequence, and cause" (8). McCrea's emphasis on "precedence" and "sequence" is essential to the way family lineage and narrative line have traditionally been paralleled by [End Page 49] scholars of the English novel.2 Peter Brooks points to "the nineteenth century's obsession with questions of origin, evolution, progress, genealogy" (6–7), all concerns that create a linear family plot line, tracing a progression from ancestry to progeny, in a process Edward Said calls "filiation" (xiii). In Said's words, "This line and this sense of heritage … stands at the absolute center of the classical novel" (93).
The marriage plot—though centred on two members of the same generation—contributes to this vertical structure, as its ultimate aim is the creation of an heir. Thus in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848) when George Osborne's father anticipates his son marrying a rich girl: "His blood boiled with honest British exultation, as he saw the name of Osborne ennobled in the person of his son, and thought that he might be the progenitor of a glorious line of baronets" (250). Similarly conflating the question of marriage and lineage, a minister's wife in Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (1869) declares that "a man when marrying should remember that his child would have two grandfathers, and would be called upon to account for four great-grandfathers" (815). This focus on the vertical adds a level of stability to the novels and to society as a whole. In Tony Tanner's words (about Pride and Prejudice, though applicable more broadly), the satisfactory marriages at the end of the novel are "exactly how a society secures its own continuity and minimises the possibility of anything approaching violent change" (105).
This comfortable story of family continuity and stability can easily accommodate multiple sisters or a sister-brother pair. Sisters do not interfere with...