Travels without My Aunt

Catherine Gallagher

  • Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748-1818 by Ruth Perry
    Cambridge, 466 pp, £50.00, August 2004, ISBN 0 521 83694 8

The English family, it’s thought, did not change rapidly or radically during the early modern period. Most English people in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries lived in what demographers call ‘simple’ households: a married couple, their dependent children and sometimes their servants – a ‘nuclear’ family, in short, rather than a complex or extended one. Like other nationalities in North-West Europe, the English practised ‘neo-local’ residence: on marrying, a young couple would settle in a separate household near their parents. Marriages tended to be consensual rather than enforced by parental fiat, contracted in the partners’ mid-to-late twenties, and producing five or six children: this was a ‘low pressure’ population system, in which people had a good chance of surviving and could get by with moderate levels of fertility. Forty per cent of children would move away from the parental home some years before marrying, in order to earn enough to set up a home of their own. In old age, parents were often dependent on their adult children, but large numbers of them (25 per cent of widows over 65 and 50 per cent of couples) were able to maintain separate establishments, especially after the passage of the Poor Laws at the beginning of the 17th century.

There was considerable variation within these patterns. The land-owning classes departed from the nuclear family model: since ‘impartible’ inheritance was usual (the estate descending intact to the eldest son), they tended to live in ‘stem-families’ (the eldest son and his offspring sharing the parental household). People living in cities married later and had fewer children; when cottage industry came to the countryside, households there became somewhat larger and more diverse. In the second half of the 18th century, women married younger (the mean dropped from 25.8 at the beginning of the century to 24.1 at its end), and fewer of them remained single; these developments produced a rise in population. However, most changes in family formation and relations occurred gradually over the entire early modern period, without any dramatic turning-points or sharp discontinuities.

Ruth Perry knows these things; she warns us not to confuse her argument with ‘the discredited thesis that the multi-generational, extended family gave way sometime in the 17th or 18th century to a nuclear family form’. She does maintain, however, that the late 18th century saw the decline of consanguineal kinship and the rise of the modern ‘conjugal’ family. Perry points out that family historians believe the period was relatively stable because the form of households didn’t change, but objects that families are not entirely contained within households. Brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and grandchildren can be essential parts of one’s family even if they don’t share one’s living quarters, and Perry, like some recent family historians, recommends that we pay more attention to the way the importance of these various relatives shifted over time. She claims that ‘the extent to which each member of the spousal pair continued to belong separately to his or her natal family’ declined precipitously in all classes in the late 18th century and that this decline was especially harmful to women. English people had once felt bound to their families of origin throughout their lives, but now increasingly lost ties with brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins. She reaches the conclusion that in the late 18th century emotional ties were radically pruned, despite what she admits is ‘evidence for an unusually early form of the nuclear conjugal family in England’. (Actually, England is no different from most of North-West Europe in this regard; Ireland stands out as the exception.) Although she claims not to hold any worn-out opinions about the replacement of extended families by nuclear ones, she ends up resurrecting that idea as a matter of identity and affect rather than living arrangements.

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