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.

This gives her a framework in which to reconsider the 18th-century novel. Novels have long been used to explore the history of subjectivity, but Perry’s book concentrates on aspects of selfhood that other critics have ignored: the struggles involved in keeping close to or relinquishing one’s family of origin. Unfortunately, though, the book’s temporal focus blurs in the very first chapter, which asserts the ‘disinheritance of daughters’ – primarily by claiming that there was a decline in their share of their parents’ legacies. Perry starts by noting the large number of late 18th-century heroines (especially in novels by women) who are required to prove that their births are legitimate and to fight for recognition from their families. She interprets this plot as ‘a mythic recording of a banal and literal truth: shifts in the social and economic purposes of kinship over the previous half-century resulted in a reconception of the daughter’s place in the family as temporary, partial and burdensome.’

When the historical evidence is given, however, it’s clear that the developments that disadvantaged the daughters of landed families – the consolidation of primogeniture, increases in entailment and the replacement of dowries by jointures – occurred slowly throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. They could hardly be seen as sudden dislocations that late 18th-century women would have registered as unjust innovations. And much of the chapter’s evidence for the declining importance of daughters in working-class families (their exclusion from guilds and certain crafts) comes from earlier periods or from later ones (the employment of substantial numbers of girls in factories). Perry sometimes seems to believe in the myth of a pre-modern golden age for working women, but most women’s labour had always been low-skilled and designed to fit into the periods between domestic chores. While one might sympathise with Perry’s assumption that the loss of common rights and the transition to wage labour were hardest on the girls, she fails to demonstrate that late 18th-century families were more likely than their predecessors to sacrifice their daughters to their economic interests.

Long-term changes in family life undoubtedly accompanied economic change in early modern England, but their ramifications are not easily gauged, and Perry often leaves aside historians’ conclusions and disputes, declaring that their work is full of ‘insoluble controversies’. Nevertheless, she delivers her own opinions with an air of certainty. Here is her account of the impact of wage labour: ‘Some historians claim that this increased economic interdependence drew the family together and dissolved the basis for patriarchal authority; others argue that the wage structure made women and children dependent as never before on male earnings. I imagine that wage earning caused a psychological disaggregation of the family.’ Moments like this are especially puzzling because Perry, who generally imagines the conjugal family as emotionally intense, seems here to think that it could easily dissolve. She doesn’t tell us why she imagines that this form of economic interdependence led to psychological disaggregation, or why she disagrees with both sides of the historians’ debate. Her determination to view the processes of modernisation as bad for the consanguineal family, and therefore bad for women, is relentless.

Novel Relations, as its title promises, includes copious literary evidence, and one of its strengths is that it makes us think harder about the importance and diversity of family plots. While being grateful for Perry’s wide survey, I wish her principles of interpretation were more consistent. In the first chapter, we’re told that the presence of disinherited daughters in fiction reflected a social reality; but in the second chapter, after telling us that tender, caring relations between fathers and daughters abound in the late 18th-century novel, constituting one of its most obvious differences from the mid-century novel, Perry declines to conclude that these novels, too, reflect social conditions. They are instead a ‘nostalgic and compensatory re-creation’ of a distant ‘feudal dispensation’. She doesn’t tell us which features of the novels reveal them to be either nostalgic fantasies or stylised but accurate reflections. She maintains that ‘there is no simple formula that tells when a story is functioning in one or another of these ways … Only by reading back and forth between literature and history can a critic get a feel for how a text symbolises, transcends or comments on its time.’ Too often, though, the decision to read the novels one way rather than another seems to lack any historical grounding: ‘Although existing family histories do not track changes in the father-daughter relationship over time,’ Perry writes, ‘I believe that by the late 18th century the responsibility of fathers for daughters was so far attenuated that the fantasy of paternal responsibility was the subject of nostalgic yearning. Daughters were increasingly at the mercy of husbands in respect to the disposal of their property and income, as well as their liberty and happiness.’ A few chapters later, however, she backs away from this claim and notes that the appearance of certain themes and plot devices in the later 18th century might only reflect the fact that many more women had become authors: ‘Although the degree of control a husband exerted over his wife may not actually have been greater in the 18th century than during the early 17th century or the Restoration, the addition of the woman’s point of view on the subject … imparted to the discourse on marriage a new sense of crisis and individual suffering.’

We hear no more about this possibility, nor is there any discussion of the difficulty of tracking changes in emotional life by means of a new genre whose appearance is said to coincide with those changes. Since there are no 17th-century domestic novels to use as comparisons, how would we know if the late 18th century’s novels are registering new phenomena? The marriage plot, the orphaned hero, the quest for identity, the tension between consanguineal and conjugal relations – all these are normal properties of the novel. One might want to argue that the rise of a genre with these features at this time is itself evidence of changes in the family or that the novel helped to hasten or retard those changes, but Perry makes no such claims. Most of the chapters are devoted to representations of various family relations in 18th-century fiction (fathers and daughters, sisters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, aunts), which makes it difficult to tell what should be attributed to new historical circumstances and what should be recognised as the generic features of the form. Moreover, Perry’s literary evidence often reveals continuity within the 18th century, instead of the expected move away from consanguineal ties. Brother-sister relations in Eliza Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) do not differ greatly from those in Mansfield Park (1814), which should indicate either that assumptions about this particular relationship were not changing quickly, or that novels, because of some generic exigencies, were not sensitive registers of any alteration.

If the late 18th century was a definitive turning-point, Victorian novels should reveal the aftermath of the change. Perry suggests as much in her chapter on ‘Important Aunts’: ‘This almost-mother, this strong “aunt”, like a ghostly presence, is an 18th-century phenomenon, the last trace of an independent woman – on her way to extinction in the 19th century.’ This is a bizarre claim. The canonical Victorian novels in which independent and formidable aunts play leading roles spring immediately to mind: Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, Bleak House, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss. Clearly this figure is not ‘an 18th-century phenomenon’, but what does that prove? It shows only that Victorian plots drew on the same resources as 18th-century plots. ‘Ah Gracious powers!’ Thackeray’s narrator sighs self-parodically, ‘I wish you would send an old aunt – a maiden aunt – an aunt with a lozenge on her carriage, and a front of light coffee-coloured hair.’ The dream did not change much.

The same could be said for the plot conclusions Perry claims are unique to the late 18th century. She says that the affectively charged family reunions that end many 18th-century novels serve as emotional ‘compensation’ for the actual loss of close ties with biological kin; by early in the 19th century, she claims, even ‘these fictional attempts to celebrate a revived moral responsibility to consanguineal families were, of course, doomed.’ Persuasion, we’re told, marks the departure from the practice of ending novels with reconstituted biological families. What about Oliver Twist? Or Vanity Fair? Bleak House? Jane Eyre? Wuthering Heights? The Mill on the Floss? Daniel Deronda? Victorian novels have no lack of parents and long-lost children whose resemblance to one another leads to rediscovery of their relationship, and are full too of coincidental reunions and deathbed reconciliations. If such endings signify a longing to be folded back into one’s biological family, then George Eliot seems to have felt it as keenly as Frances Burney. Should we, following the same logic, interpret the popularity of 20th-century multi-generational epic novel cycles (or for that matter, soap operas) as proof that we’re still nostalgic for something we lost in the 18th century? And if such family reunions attest to the shrinkage of actual relations, why aren’t the endings of Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale evidence that consanguineous ties were already attenuated in 1611?

The lack of evidence from adjacent periods is particularly striking on the many occasions when Perry compares modern ideas of the family with anthropological data on kinship from vastly different societies. The anthropological information from Africa, the Near East, Oceania and elsewhere highlights the fact that in these cultures it was normal to identify women through consanguineal rather than conjugal relations. Examples from other parts of the world are supposed to ‘help us to reimagine the unique benefits’ of the older dispensation, but they are often so brief and unspecific that they have very limited comparative value: ‘In Oceania and the Arab world,’ Perry tells us, ‘the intense bond between brother and sister provides important experience for gender socialisation when siblings are young and guarantees social identity as well as maintaining cultural memory into the next generation.’ At this level of generalisation, sibling relations in Oceania don’t sound terribly different from those in my own family. The larger problem, though, is that most of the examples have little to do with the changes that are supposed to have taken place in 18th-century England. ‘The rise of nation-states,’ we’re told, ‘is always at the expense of those social formations that anthropologists call “kin corporations”, otherwise understood as laterally extended families or clans, bands, tribes or chiefdoms within lineage societies.’ When states come to replace these older forms, women as sisters lose power; Dahomey and Tonga in the 19th century are the cases adduced. This is interesting, but what is its relevance to the historical argument? Perry can’t be implying that before the conjugal family came to dominate it in the late 18th century, England had social formations resembling kin corporations, or that the nation-state was a new feature of the period. The exotic information just adds to the great heap of injuries that modernisation has inflicted on women.

One would not want to forget or minimise those wrongs, and Perry’s book serves as a counterweight to the belief that the condition of women is always bettered by ‘development’. But Novel Relations seems to err in the other direction by acknowledging no compensatory benefits. The rights to divorce, independent property, citizenship and custody of one’s children are not mentioned among the effects of modernisation on women, nor are increases in employment and educational opportunities. One might get the impression from reading this book that women were incarcerated in conjugal cells in the late 18th century, a badly distorted picture even of Victorian family life, where fluidity of structure was ‘the norm rather than the exception’. A study of Northampton in the early 1900s, for example, distinguished 330 types of household grouping.

Nuclear isolation is less prevalent in an age of serial monogamy and blended families, and modern longevity has strengthened the primary consanguineal relation between grandparents and grandchildren, spawning new forms of intergenerational economic and emotional reliance. Individuals used to have more relatives on their own genealogical level (siblings and cousins, for example), and Perry is surely right to argue that this generational thickness must have affected people’s sense of identity. But we now have more living ascendants to begin with (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts of various kinds), and if we continue our family lines, we will usually know more of our descendants. Women now can expect to know their adult grandchildren and great nieces and nephews, and even to meet their great-grandchildren and great-great nieces and nephews. I’d prefer that to the return of a boatload of lost cousins.