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’.

Prominent families occupy much of her attention for the good reason that they have bequeathed the richest store of information. Two, the Gladstones and the Freuds, are investigated in detail. William Gladstone’s sister Helen was a misfit who rejected the obligations of female usefulness and became addicted to opiates. Her rebellion then took a religious turn, as she transferred the obedience she might have been expected to owe her male relations to the Catholic Church and convent life. Her conversion made her defiance more disquieting. Disobedience was difficult to argue with when it took the form of submission to a higher authority, as the brothers of many devout Victorian women discovered. William attributed Helen’s conduct to mulish pride and folly. A generation later, Freud identified radically different reasons for such unhappiness. He transformed our understanding of negotiations within families, while continuing to hold quite conventional notions of gender identity. His daughter Mathilde was worried about her ability to attract a husband. What men really wanted from their wives, Freud explained in a letter, was ‘gentleness, cheerfulness and the talent to make their life easier and more beautiful’.

Freud’s thinking was primarily engaged with the dominance of the father and mother and writers such as Juliet Mitchell have pointed out the psychoanalytic model’s stubborn denial of the role of brothers and sisters. His daughter Anna, according to James Strachey, saw psychoanalysis as a ‘game reserve; belonging to the F. Family’. For all its focus on the inner life, psychoanalysis bore some unexpected resemblances to the middle-class family firms that dominated the commercial life of the 19th century. It was founded on collective aspiration, and held together by loyalty.

Nineteenth-century literature, with its concentration on the life of feeling, had already defined the terrain psychoanalysis would examine. Romantic and Victorian writers were preoccupied by the instability of sexual passion. The purity of childhood emotions supposedly determined brother-sister relations, but their strength implied other possibilities. The Wordsworth family provides an early example. Dorothy and William’s closeness was once thought of as evidence of sisterly dependence on a distinguished older brother. It now looks as if Dorothy’s hunger for a secure home was answered by William’s need for the unwavering allegiance of the woman he called his ‘compass and polestar’. Many women depended on their brothers for somewhere to live, but the intensity of Dorothy’s feelings was unusual, shading into something that looked very like a lover’s partiality. This is her response to his wedding: ‘I kept myself as Quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer, and threw myself on the bed, where I lay in stillness, neither hearing nor seeing anything.’ The proximity of their daily lives fostered the sense of shared identity that Wordsworth celebrated in a fragment from 1800:

My hope, my joy, my sister and my friend
Or something dearer still, if reason knows
A dearer thought, or in the heart of love
There be a dearer name.

Sibling relations also took more explicitly sexual forms. Rumours of Byron’s intimacy with his half-sister Augusta were confirmed after his death, but during his lifetime his relationship with her seemed to him stronger and more authentic than any of his other relationships with women. She bound him to his origins. Like Wordsworth, Byron felt that some other word than ‘sister’ might be needed: ‘My sister, my sweet sister! If a name/Dearer and purer were, it should be thine,’ he wrote in ‘Epistle to Augusta’ (1816). Though Byron did not grow up with Augusta, he identified her with ‘home’: ‘There yet are two things in my destiny –/A world to roam through, and a home with thee.’ This was a fantasy, as he knew. Byron (unlike Wordsworth) would not have been likely to value the routines of sober domesticity. Yet the ideal lingered in his mind:

I can reduce all feelings but this one;
And that I would not; for at length I see
Such scenes as those wherein my life begun.

George Eliot, the most Wordsworthian of Victorian novelists, was alienated from her censorious brother Isaac, who objected to her freethinking career; but she ‘yearned’ to regain his good opinion. ‘School parted us,’ she recalls in her autobiographical ‘Brother and Sister’ sonnets; but her early happiness with Isaac taught her ‘the meanings that give words a soul’. Siblings knew the way back to the unfallen world of childhood innocence, if only in memory. Eliot’s sonnets, written when her achievements were at their height, ache with nostalgia: ‘But were another childhood-world my share,/I would be born a little sister there.’ This was dangerous stuff, especially if it persuaded women to identify contentment with dependence. Eliot, who hadn’t hesitated to sever herself from her brother when he had threatened to curtail her freedom, recognised as much in The Mill on the Floss, which remembers Isaac in the damaging and finally catastrophic relationship between Maggie Tulliver and her brother Tom.

Sisters’ misplaced fidelity for brothers is a frequent topic among mid-Victorian women novelists, though their male counterparts, perhaps unsurprisingly, often took a more positive line (think of Florence’s tender love for Paul Dombey). The tough-minded novelist Elizabeth Missing Sewell, a contemporary of Eliot, repeatedly warned women about renouncing autonomy in order to dedicate themselves to a brother’s welfare. Her youth had been dominated by the demands of her numerous and needy brothers, especially the overbearing William Sewell, the Oxford theologian and co-founder of Radley College, to whom she had been unshakably devoted as a girl. This, she concluded, had been a mistake. Men would always require support, but it was the business of wives, not sisters, to bolster them (her views on marriage were as pointedly anti-romantic as her dismissal of brother worship). She based her admonitions on religious principles. In her 1858 novel Ursula, where the heroine’s lifelong idolisation of her brother turns to poison, it is God’s will that ‘a wife should come first, and a sister second.’ Like Helen Gladstone, Sewell believed that true piety could justify a loosening of family bonds. But her scepticism about brothers was grounded in experience. Like many women of her class and generation, she earned a living with the help of a sister. Such partnerships could sometimes deliver mutual benefits harder to attain with brothers, or husbands. It was Ellen Sewell, not William, who helped Elizabeth run two flourishing schools, and allowed her the time she needed to thrive as a novelist.

Other women were not so lucky, or so uncompromising, or so competent. Many unmarried or widowed sisters remained dependent on their brothers’ help throughout the 19th century. Men, too, could require a good deal of propping up. Dickens was bitter about the dependents, male and female, who crowded his life: ‘You don’t know what it is to look round the table and see reflected from every seat at it … some horribly well remembered expression of inadaptability to anything.’ But for middle-class women even adaptability and talent could not guarantee self-sufficiency. For all the distinction of her writing, Christina Rossetti was never able to secure an adequate income. Her attempts to do so by founding a school with her mother, as Elizabeth Sewell had done with her sister, ended in failure. For most of her adult life, she needed the financial support of her brother William Michael. The Brontë sisters also tried to set up a school – a regular ploy among educated women without money or husbands in the mid-Victorian period. They too failed. Then Emily and Anne died. Charlotte didn’t have a well-funded and well-disposed brother to help her: Branwell was undisciplined and penurious. Thrown back on her own resources, she realised that the faithful intimacy and competitive aggression of her close family had stimulated her fiction, and the influence lasted: Charlotte would go on to write Shirley and Villette after their deaths, before dying herself while pregnant with what would have been her first child.

Charlotte understood that the relations between brothers and sisters could be as fervent, or as hurtful, as those between lovers. But she shared Sewell’s hard-headed approach to money, and knew the economic realities behind the passions that drive her fiction. Making a fortune, or losing it, was often a family matter during the Industrial Revolution. If no sons were available to continue the family business, other male relatives or sons-in-law would be drafted in. This was not infallible: the young men were not always suited to the work, and tensions between competing brothers could bring disaster. Nevertheless, the model was largely effective, ensuring an element of continuity in times of economic turbulence, and it kept household and mercantile values together in ways that strengthened both. Family businesses were paternal in structure, and nurtured fraternal closeness alongside fraternal rivalry. Behind the scenes, women worked to strengthen the social networks that held the arrangement together. Employers felt that their responsibility for their subordinates was comparable with their duty to their family: ‘I and my manufactory sink or swim together; my existence depends on it and its existence depends on me.’ Employees, domestic servants and blood relatives were not in any case wholly distinct categories. Many residential servants were related, if distantly, to members of the family they worked for. The resulting networks could be stifling, but they were also a source of stability and support.

Large families were essential to this system, and it faltered as the flocks of mid-Victorian children began to thin. The means to limit fertility gradually became available and were socially acceptable by the 1880s. A tacit understanding that birth control was a mark of progressive education crept into definitions of social standing. A horde of infants no longer proved respectability but in time came to be seen as characteristic of the feckless working classes. The only child, once exceptional, became more common. This was undoubtedly a release, in many distinct ways. Married women often died in pregnancy or were exhausted by continuous childbearing; their husbands had been trapped by the need to support burgeoning broods. Biddable daughters had been unable to separate themselves from the claims of the family circle. The welfare state now took over the responsibilities that had once fallen to young women, giving them new opportunities for self-fulfilment. Yet the change has also brought loss. In our own precarious economic times, the state’s safety net is developing unnerving holes. We are more isolated than our great-grandparents, with fewer co-conspirators to remember our first adventures, fewer comforting connections as age starts to set us adrift. Cardinal Newman, hardly a family man, was disconsolate when his sister Jemima died, though their relations hadn’t been warm: ‘Now I am the only one in the world who knows a hundred things most interesting to me.’