Sisters come second

Dinah Birch

  • Thicker than Water: Siblings and Their Relations 1780-1920 by Leonore Davidoff
    Oxford, 449 pp, £35.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 954648 0

You can’t choose whether or not to have siblings. Many children would change their situation, if they could. Some long for company, others are bent on ridding themselves of rivals. But the connection is often the most enduring of all social relationships. Friends, lovers and spouses come and go. Parents die: children arrive when we’re adults, if at all. But siblings can never be divorced, and even estranged, they are seldom forgotten. Not only do they share our genes, they are woven into our earliest memories. Loving, tiresome, indifferent or disapproving, they represent our past.

It’s tempting to think that such family feelings are timeless. Perhaps some of them are. ‘No one can hate like a brother’ was a favourite adage in my family, pronounced with gloomy satisfaction whenever news of some violent fraternal rift reached us – which, in our small farming community, was often. We were unconsciously echoing Aristotle’s verdict in the Politics: ‘There’s no hate like brothers’ hate.’ We had heard of Cain and Abel, the first pair of brothers. ‘Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.’ We knew about Jacob and Esau too, and thought Esau entirely in the right. ‘And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him.’ These were not encouraging precedents.

Despite such hatreds, alliances between siblings have framed economic and cultural life for centuries. But this may be changing. Used to exercising consumer choice in all circumstances, younger people are (we’re told) increasingly likely to spend time with their friends, rather than sticking to siblings. The supply of brothers and sisters has also shrunk. Contraception and career options for women have diminished the size of families, while easier separation means that they often fragment. Family life was very different in the 19th century. What Leonore Davidoff calls the ‘long family’ – a succession of children with birthdates spanning a period of twenty years or more – was common. The change has been radical, and its consequences far-reaching. Yet, as Davidoff reminds us in her study of sibling relations in the long 19th century, this has not been a popular subject with social historians: everyone had siblings and so it hardly seemed to merit attention. Everybody could claim experience, if not expertise. From an academic point of view, specialising in domestic history didn’t offer much in the way of career advancement. The ramifications of family life were often assumed to be the territory of women researchers, while men got on with more meaningful work. Fundamental shifts in the assumptions that underlie historical scrutiny have meant that historians now recognise the significance of the emotions in the lives of men as well as women, and begin to acknowledge links between ‘psychic processes and public life’, as Davidoff puts it.

Her study is largely (though not entirely) confined to Britain, and she confesses that she is mostly concerned with the middle classes, but these are the territories she knows best, and her work is the stronger for building on her monumental Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850, written with Catherine Hall and published in 1987. It would be good to know more about family traditions among labourers in the 19th century, but their lives have left fewer traces and Davidoff admits that her decision to leave out the working classes was largely dictated by ‘the practicalities of historical research’.

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