Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf (Paperback)Mary Jean Corbett (author)
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In nineteenth-century England, marriage between first cousins was both legally permitted and perfectly acceptable. After mid-century, laws did not explicitly penalize sexual relationships between parents and children, between siblings, or between grandparents and grandchildren. But for a widower to marry his deceased wife's sister was illegal on the grounds that it constituted incest. That these laws and the mores they reflect strike us today as wrongheaded indicates how much ideas about kinship, marriage, and incest have changed.
In Family Likeness, Mary Jean Corbett shows how the domestic fiction of novelists including Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Virginia Woolf reflected the shifting boundaries of "family" and even helped refine those borders. Corbett takes up historically contingent and culturally variable notions of who is and is not a relative and whom one can and cannot marry. Her argument is informed by legal and political debates; texts in sociology and anthropology; and discussions on the biology of heredity, breeding, and eugenics. In Corbett's view, marriage within families-between cousins, in-laws, or adoptees-offered Victorian women, both real and fictional, an attractive alternative to romance with a stranger, not least because it allowed them to maintain and strengthen relations with other women within the family.
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Number of pages: 280
Weight: 408 g
Dimensions: 235 x 156 x 20 mm
"Corbett's readings of Victorian novels are informed by Foucault and Judith Butler, and illuminated by intersecting contemporary economic, religious, racial, class, biological, and anthropological discourses. Drawing on a fascinating range of primary documentation, she emphasizes the 'stringent limits to what we can know,' pointing out, for example, that incestuous sexual abuse came to be regarded as a working-class, or 'savage,' phenomenon partly because white middle-class homes escaped surveillance. One of Corbett's strengths lies in her determination to contest 'static versions of the past' and expose its 'messiness and complexity' in order to gain a better understanding of the ways in which women authors invoked and modified fictions of kinship."-Miranda El-Rayess, Times Literary Supplement, 17 April 2009
"In this beautifully written, well-argued book, Corbett confronts the puzzling status of 'incest' in the 19th century. Victorian England had no laws against a man's having sex with his own sister or child but prohibited a widower from marrying the sister of his late wife. Beginning with this paradox, Corbett looks at how 'family' was defined legally, morally, and socially between the time of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. . . . Corbett undertakes a series of readings, not just of novels and juvenilia by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Virginia Woolf, but also of legal discourse about marriage, scientific inquiry into how breeding works, and late-19th-century anthropological theories identifying incest as that which separates the 'savage' from the 'civilized.' In her conclusion, Corbett draws connections between Victorian thought on the constitution of the family and current debates over gay marriage. This book will benefit historians of the family as well as scholars and students of Victorian and modern British literature. Highly recommended."-Choice, June 2009
"Family Likeness is a fascinating and informative investigation of how families were represented in British novels across the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. It is a pleasure to read. Mary Jean Corbett presents new information from primary sources and offers fresh interpretations of canonical literary texts. Placing novels in a rich historical context informed by law, anthropology, urban sociology, eugenics, and author biography, she shows how novels reflected and refracted contemporary beliefs and anxieties about changing family forms."-Margaret Homans, Yale University
"Family Likeness is a wide-ranging, gracefully written exploration of changing definitions of incest and kinship in nineteenth-century British literature and culture. By showing how what counts as incest is historically variable, and how who is too close to marry and who too far is constantly undergoing definition, Mary Jean Corbett demonstrates how domestic fiction participates in the ongoing process of defining family."-Kathy Psomiades, Duke University