Literary Kinship Studies

While there was once a time that anthropological theory influenced literary studies, lately it seems as if the trend has been the other way around; so, can we assume that when literary scholars turn their attention to kinship studies it will spark renewed interest in the subject among anthropologists? The book I’m referring to is: Novel Relations : The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818. It was recently reviewed in a New York Review of Books article on Jane Austen, by Diane Johnson.

Perry’s book shows that Austen lived at a time when women’s status was shifting. While it had previously been defined by blood relations, making a woman’s relationship with her parents and siblings more important than who she married, by the end of the eighteenth century women’s status was increasingly defined entirely by the family she married into. This has important implications for literary studies, since sibling relationships are often overlooked in readings of Austen’s novels:

In Perry’s view, previous definitions of the family have been based on incorrect inferences from statistical norms and prescriptive conduct manuals. Statistics taken from public records of marriages and births ignore “many of the other filaments in the web of kinship that located people psychologically in the period,” because there are no published records of such filaments—a maiden aunt, like Austen living with the family, for example, would not appear in any record. And where modern readers assume that a novel will contain a love story, the main story the author had in mind might in fact be about a bad or good brother, a long-lost relative, fathers separated from daughters, a devoted aunt, or some other aspect of the birth family (with mothers often missing or unimportant, as in Austen). Such elements were more important than love stories in the novels Austen read, like Tristram Shandy or The Castle of Otronto.

… This loss of female authority was accompanied or explained by other social factors that were not in women’s interest: the growing “dispersion of communities, and the growing power of individualism,” and changes in property laws and marriage settlements that left sisters and daughters less well provided for than they had been, and with little legal leverage. Inheritance issues drive most of Jane Austen’s plots and subplots; and because she was on the cusp of changes that would increasingly commodify women and virginity for the marriage market, trends masked by conventions of romantic love, she came to seem to some later readers as somewhat hardhearted in the practicality of her views, for instance (in Perry’s example) her implicit mockery in Sense and Sensibility of Marianne Dashwood’s “ardent belief in a first and only love,” a belief that would have made no sense in an earlier period, when a third of all marriages were second marriages, after the death of a spouse, but was fashionably new in Marianne’s day.

Perry’s elucidation of the plots of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century novels in the light of these broad social changes goes a long way toward explaining why many of them do not move us today; the reunion of long-lost fathers and daughters, for instance, or the intense relation of brother and sister no longer seem especially affecting. The long-lost relative plot simply had more emotional force when the “consanguinal” family rather than the “affinal” family was the principle focus of emotional life (though, thinking of The Mill on the Floss or Silas Marner we can see that such consanguinal plots appear at least as late as George Eliot). It may be that the marriage plot itself has seen its day, and in these times of redefined families, plots will change—there is already a spate of family novels and novels about friendship that do not resolve in marriage.

This makes me think about the differences between Hollywood and Bollywood films. In the latter (although it is changing now) familial relations between siblings and between children and their parents are far more important than romantic relations between unmarried men and women. In fact, the main emotional relationship in many Hindi movies is between the male lead and his mother, not between him and the woman he is to marry at the end of the film. I wonder if this (even more than colonial history) explains the love so many Indian’s have of classic English literature?

2 thoughts on “Literary Kinship Studies

  1. It’s Austen, with an “e.” And “The Castle of Otranto,” not Otronto. Simple-minded mistakes like these cast doubt on your accuracy on larger issues. And since the book costs $80, most people aren’t going to check.

    I think personally — from long experience with Jane Austen — that the issue is much less status than economics: a young woman from the gentry had the options of marrying, becoming a permanent dependent, or becoming a governess. For all her heroines except Emma Woodhouse, what money there was would clearly go elsewhere at the father’s death. Even in Emma’s case the issue is at best beclouded.

  2. I claim no expertise on Austen, I was referring to a published review I read – so I don’t see why my spelling should cast doubt on anything. And even if that review has a spelling mistake (“Otronto” is how its spelled in the review) there is always the library.

    You also seem to miss the point of the article which is that these economic issues were not always as you describe them, but were changing at the time that Austen wrote.

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