'Sisters and the English Household' revalues unmarried adult sisters in nineteenth-century English literature as positive figures of legal and economic autonomy representing productive labour in the domestic space. As a crucial site of contested values, the adult unmarried sister carries the discursive weight of sustained public debates about ideals of domesticity in nineteenth-century England. Engaging scholarly histories of the family, and providing a detailed account of the 70-year Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister controversy, Wallace traces an alternative domesticity anchored by adult sibling relations through Dorothy Wordsworth's journals; William Wordsworth's poetry; Mary Lamb's essay 'On Needle-Work'; and novels by Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Dinah Mulock Craik and George Eliot. Recognizing adult sibling relationships, and the figure of the adult unmarried sibling in the household, as primary and generative rather than contingent and dependent, and recognizing material economy and law as fundamental sources of sibling identity, 'Sisters and the English Household' resets the conditions for literary critical discussions of sibling relations in nineteenth-century England.
In the twenty-first century, literary scholars have increasingly explored the significant historical distance between the ways we name, plot and characterize sibling relations, and the quite different ways that pre-twentieth-century writers and readers might have done so. Yet, as Mary Jean Corbett and Naomi Tadmor have separately argued, efforts to historicize our understanding of English families over the crucial transitional period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been weakened by scholars' reliance on terms and ideas that assume stable, universally human familial structures and relations. When we focus on the sibling relation, this reliance proves particularly limiting, driving continuing tendencies to define 'brother' and 'sister' in terms of sexual, specifically conjugal relations that reinscribe those stabilizing concepts, or to subsume the sibling relation into other categories, eliding its potential primacy in 'family'.
'Sisters and the English Household' works to escape these lingering critical limitations through two innovations: a reframing of efforts to historicize 'family' as a further historicizing of 'domesticity' that renders it multiple and fluid rather than monolithic; and a turn towards the unmarried adult sister as a figure of legal and economic autonomy representing productive labour in the domestic space. The book traces two distinct nineteenth-century ideals of domesticity, one of which understood sibling fortunes as fruitfully intertwined through the full extent of the siblings' lives (corporate domesticity), while the other expected the domestic, material and, to some extent, emotional separation of adult siblings from their birth-homes and from each other (industrial domesticity). The second configuration, although counterbalanced by persistent idealizations of the first, sibling-anchored model, was gradually and unevenly ascendant through the period. As households came to be primarily defined by the relations between spouses, and between parents and children, the mutual householding and devotion of siblings, once expected features of family life, began to seem extraordinary. More specifically, as a domestic space defined by the apparent exclusion of productive labour was increasingly idealized, the adult unmarried sister in the house became an object of intense cultural scrutiny, her troubling autonomy rendering her the crucial figure in the English nineteenth-century's protracted cultural negotiation of familial, household and domestic ideals.
About the Author
Anne D. Wallace is professor of English at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, USA. The author of Walking, Literature, and English Culture (1993), Wallace has also published articles on John Clare, Charlotte Smith, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
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ALTERNATIVE DOMESTICITIES: REVALUING THE SIBLING IN THE HOUSE
In October 1796, just ten days after Mary Lamb killed their mother in a violent episode of derangement, her brother Charles wrote to Samuel Taylor Coleridge about his family's troubles. Faced with the support of Mary, for whom he intended to care at home, and his remaining family on the slender means of his post at the East India Company, Charles wrote out the motto and dedication — to Mary — of his one book of poetry, and then renounced poetry in favor of more profitable journalistic writing:
I take leave of a passion which has reigned so royally (so long) within me; thus, with its trappings of laureatship, I fling it off, pleased and satisfied with myself that the weakness troubles me no longer. I am wedded, Coleridge, to the fortunes of my sister and my poor old father. (Letters I.64)
Charles's rhetorical equation of marriage and sibling love has claimed the full attention of scholarly readers, who stop short at the words "my sister": the last words of Charles's phrase, "and my poor old father," are not quoted in critical accounts of Charles and Mary's relationship. Even Jane Aaron, whose thoughtful examination of gender in the Lambs' writings places them in important historical contexts, quotes only that troublesome verb "wedded" at the beginning of her study, implicitly (and unintentionally) attributing it to Mary: " 'wedded' in an intense sibling bond, they lived together, wrote together, 'writing on one table,' according to Mary, 'like an old literary Darby and Joan,' and were rarely seen apart" (1– 2). Aaron even more pointedly excludes the passage's final words in her concluding chapter: "Charles made the crucial decision to 'wed' himself, in his own phrase, 'to the fortunes of my sister' " (170).
Charles certainly did figure the sibling bond as marriage, not only here but also in his 1797 poem "I am a widowed thing, now thou art gone." His recasting of his sister Mary as "cousin Bridget" in his "Elia" essays implies a similar figuration, since cousins were not forbidden to marry by canon or civil law, and were not infrequently seen as quite appropriate marriage choices. But when Aaron, like other critics reading the Lambs' lives, shifts the object of the verb from "fortunes" to "sister" (" 'wedded' in an intense sibling bond" etc.), she obscures important potential meanings of that figuration: the integration of emotional and material economies accomplished by the "wedding" of "fortunes," an integration possibly encompassing all household members and certainly including "my poor father"; Charles's construction of the household as properly including parents and grown siblings; and Mary's construction, in that short quotation, of their collective literary production as a central feature of their relationship. That Aaron recognizes part of these meanings ("they lived together, wrote together") without following them into a different analysis is a common choice of critics and biographers engaging representations of domestic sibling relationships.
The accounts we have of the Lambs suggest a family structure much like that of their friends the Wordsworths, but translated to a working-class family rising toward, and then falling from, the middle classes. When Mary and Charles were young, their father's unmarried sister, Sarah, helped raise the children and maintain the house until she grew too infirm to do much physical labor. Mary, who gradually acquired the same responsibilities as Aunt Hetty (as they called Sarah) and her mother aged, briefly attended a dame school but was then apprenticed to a mantua maker. After the death of her father's employer, Samuel Salt, whose patronage had supported the Lambs' collective rise toward middle-class status in education and material comfort, Mary worked both as a principal wage earner and as the principal housekeeper and caregiver. At the time of her homicidal break in September 1796 — she had been working her "double shift" for more than a decade at this point — the Lamb household encompassed Mary's retired father, her invalid mother, the elderly Aunt Hetty, Mary's young apprentice, and Charles. After the murder, Charles took over as primary wage earner for a family that eventually shrank to himself and his sister Mary. In the intervals of Mary's recurring illness, the two lived and worked together, adding to Charles's income at East India House with their individual and collective publications, until Charles's death in 1834.
Charles's devotion to his sister became the stuff of legend for some literary Victorians, who worshiped an angelic, childlike Charles whose simple love bore the fruit of natural virtue. Yet the very fervor of Victorian approval in this case may signal fluctuations in the definition of "family," divergent expectations about a household's proper residents and their roles. Young Mary and Charles grew up in a household collectively anchored by their parents and an aunt, the spousal couple and unmarried adult sibling sharing domestic space and cares, and supported by their combined paid and unpaid labors. In their young adulthood, the siblings continued to live in the spousal-sibling household of the older generation, with both younger siblings contributing labor and income, now further embodied in Mary's live-in apprentice. It is not hard to imagine that in time, if Mary's mental health had remained unimpaired (and Charles's, since he too had suffered a psychic break), one of them might have married, perhaps extending the family into a second spousal-sibling household. Charles's decision to care for Mary at home, and to support both her and their father, is certainly admirable, but in this context it is also clearly an expected and proper configuration of their now sadly truncated domestic world. When Aaron points to a "secular canonization" (8) of Charles following the publication of Thomas Talfourd's Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (1848), marked by "a proliferation of personal testimonies" celebrating Charles as "an exemplary individual whose personality was assuming mythic proportions" (7), she is describing a reaction underwritten by different expectations of sibling relations, and of family and household, than the Lambs' historical family seems to have embodied.
Aaron attributes this divergence to Charles's individual views — "Charles himself took his allegiance to his sister for granted" — and points to gender as the source of others' different perceptions: "had the sexes been reversed and the sister rather than the brother been afforded the opportunity to manifest such devotion, no doubt others also would have accepted the relationship as a 'natural,' if commendable, example of feminine self-sacrifice" (8). There is little question that "self-sacrifice" was more readily identified with women, or that unmarried sisters housekeeping for their brothers, married or unmarried, was the more commonly expected case. But I argue for an additional explanation extending beyond Charles's gender: the ongoing cultural negotiation of at least two distinct ideals of familial life, both functional throughout the nineteenth century, one of which understood sibling fortunes as fruitfully intertwined through the full extent of the siblings' lives, and one of which expected the domestic, material, and to some extent emotional separation of adult siblings from their birth homes and from each other. The second configuration, familiar to us as the "nuclear" family or household, though long counterbalanced by persistent idealizations of the first, sibling-anchored model, was gradually and unevenly ascendant through the period. As households came to be primarily defined by the relations between spouses, and between parents and children, the mutual householding and devotion of siblings, once expected features of family life, begin to seem extraordinary. More specifically, as a domestic space defined by the apparent exclusion of productive labor is increasingly idealized, the adult unmarried sister in the house — as Aaron notes, the expected signifier of such labor — becomes an object of intense cultural scrutiny, recommended for celebration, exile, or both. It is not only that Charles seems to have reversed gendered expectations, but also that he understands theirs as a sibling-anchored household, in which sibling affections and sibling labors play as great a role in defining "family" as marriage and parenthood — in some such households, a greater role.
When we read nineteenth-century English literature with this possibility in mind — the possibility of an alternative family model that idealizes the congruence rather than the conflict of sibling and marital intimacies, that allies rather than separates productive labor and domestic affections — the figure of the adult unmarried sibling in the house may then be read as having primary, rather than secondary or compensatory, significance in a family's domestic affections and in its material prosperity. If we recognize (for instance) that it may have been expected, rather than surprising or claustrophobically oppressive, that Emma Woodhouse and her sister would marry brothers, or that George Knightley's pledge to move into Hartfield with Emma and her father, though generous, could also be understood as expected and appropriate, then we may read not just "family" but also "class," "labor," and, yes, "love" in Austen's novel rather differently. With this alternative in play, "brother" and "sister" become terms with multiple potential meanings that may function as nuanced, shifting indices of a character's meanings or a text's ideological positions.
Consider the scene in which Emma is called to join the dancers at the long-awaited ball at the Crown:
"Whom are you going to dance with?" asked Mr. Knightley.
She hesitated a moment, and then replied, "With you, if you will ask me."
"Will you?" said he, offering his hand.
"Indeed I will. You have shown that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper."
"Brother and sister! no, indeed." (Emma 358)
Clearly Emma is joking with Mr. Knightley, both about his dancing and about their relationship. But the terms of this joke are telling. Emma's playful wording renders "brother" and "sister" as fluid, incremental terms, and links this relationship to an equally uncertain condition of "impropriety": what degree of being "really so much brother and sister" would "make it at all improper" to dance together (Emma 358; emphasis mine)? In part Emma's jest depends on the notion that some judgment may have to be exercised before one can know whether, or to what extent, one might be termed a "brother" or "sister." Of course Emma and Mr. Knightley have no blood or affinal ties: Emma would be considered John Knightley's sister (we would say, "sister-in-law") through her own sister Isabella's marriage to John, but she would not have any legal relation to George Knightley. For Emma to introduce these terms, then, suggests that she might think of Mr. Knightley as her metaphorical brother, or that she thinks Mr. Knightley might regard her in that way. George Knightley's continuous stream of advice and judgments of Emma's behavior, and his frequent presence at Hartfield, might signal just such a figurative relation, emotionally and domestically intimate despite the absence of blood or legal ties.
But dancing between brothers and sisters could not be "at all improper" whether they were blood or affinal or metaphorical siblings. The humor of Emma's arch remark further depends on our understanding that she is not talking about literal dancing only — an understanding that is no stretch for most readers, given the immediate context of Mr. Knightley's mercy dance with Harriet Smith, whom Emma regards as a good marriage partner for him. Emma's remark conjoins two uncertainties, one about what it means to be "brother" and "sister," and the other about the propriety of romance and marriage between "brothers" and "sisters" of varying degrees. Rather than assuming a shared understanding of a clear distance between sibling and conjugal affections, Emma's sally proposes that the relationship between siblinghood (in its various degrees) and marriage is debatable — and that sibling relationships may play a crucial role in the selection of "dance partners."
Mr. Knightley's response repeats the terms of Emma's remark and, in its own ambiguities, the uncertainties upon which her joke depends: "Brother and sister! no, indeed." Whether one reads his tone as serious — "no, I do not think of you as a sister at all" — or as ironic, implying that Emma fails to recognize that indeed they are figuratively brother and sister, he has accepted her premise that they must sort out whether and to what extent they are siblings before they can "dance." It is the second reading that may be opaque to the twenty-first-century reader. We can readily understand that the absence of sibling feeling may point toward dancing, and toward romance and marriage. But if he speaks ironically, matching Emma's tone as well as her terms, then some degree of being brother and sister potentially authorizes, rather than forbids, their "dancing" — and, as we know, in the end the "brother" and "sister" in question do marry. The point is not which interpretation of George Knightley's response is correct — I think that both are, to some extent —, but that we cannot readily identify the range of alternative readings unless we recognize the possibility of an alternative ideal of "family," perhaps lampooned, perhaps celebrated, at work in Austen's Emma.
If "brother" and "sister" are also specific economic signs, indices of the different material economic structures instantiated in different family configurations, then it is not only nuances of affect that are at stake in the ambiguities of Emma's and George Knightley's conversation. It has become a truism that Austen's representations of class, for all their overt conservatism, draw attention also to the instability of the traditional class system. In Emma, the good marriages consolidate wealth and appear to affirm class placement in the face of such potential threats as Emma's disruptive matchmaking and Mrs. Elton's social climbing. But I read the novel as saying something more unexpected (from our perspective) than "stick to your own kind": it repeatedly represents sibling relations as an essential stabilizing force that enables appropriate marriage and the gradual advancement, as well as consolidation, of wealth, particularly for women. Harriet Smith meets Robert Martin as the friend of one of his sisters, and they begin their relationship while Harriet is living in Robert's birth home, in the figurative place of an additional sister. While their marriage is usually cited as another triumph of class consolidation, Harriet's illegitimacy, and her eventually discovered birth identity as the natural child of a well-to-do tradesman, places her below the respectable farmer. As Emma admits to Mr. Knightley when she learns that Harriet and Robert are engaged, "I think Harriet is doing extremely well. Her connexions may be worse than his. In respectability of character, there can be no doubt that they are" (516, emphasis original). In the last chapter the narrative voice, indirectly articulating Emma's thoughts about the discovery of Harriet's blood parentage, reinforces this: "The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed [...] in the home [Robert] offered, there would be the hope of more [than happiness], of security, stability, and improvement" (526). Although Emma's judgment can rarely be taken as definitive, the novel's plot tells us clearly that the path to Harriet's rising fortune depends as much on the sibling relation — the initial friendship, the brief period when Harriet enjoys the figurative place of another sibling in the household, and the sister's later persistence in seeking Harriet out (with which Emma interferes) — as on the romantic attraction between Harriet and Robert.
Similarly, when Emma marries her metaphorical brother, her sister's husband's blood brother, the marriage not only consolidates the land and fortunes of Hartfield and Donwell Abbey but also doubly ensures the succession in both Emma and Isabella's, John and George Knightley's, spousal families. Emma thinks with some amusement that, after she and Mr. Knightley are engaged, she "was never struck with any sense of injury to her nephew Henry, whose rights as heir expectant had formerly been so tenaciously regarded," implying that it was her undiscovered feelings for her future husband, rather than "the amiable solicitude of the sister and the aunt" alone, that that made her oppose Mr. Knightley's marriage to another woman (490). But her discovery is not that this "amiable solicitude" is not operative, but only that her distaste for such a marriage could not be "wholly imputed" to this concern (490). In her earlier discourse to Harriet on remaining unmarried herself, Emma displays both the common prejudice against the unmarried older woman and what I believe was the countering, and equally common, model of the financially self-sufficient unmarried sister whose emotional life is vested in "the children of a sister I love so much": "My nephews and nieces! — I shall often have a niece with me" (92). The keys to contentment and social acceptance as a spinster, Emma argues, are that the unmarried woman not be poor (though her lone example, Miss Bates, seems to disprove this point), and that she be a sister of a married sibling, actively engaged in the emotional life of her sibling's children, and able to foster or host them in her own establishment ("I shall often have a niece with me"). Although her marriage may intervene between Henry and direct inheritance, Emma's relation as his aunt, his mother's sister, will still have force, now doubly secured by marital ties through a pair of brothers, and enhanced by the considerable rise in the landed property and general wealth which might descend to Emma's son or daughter — or to Henry, should there be no child of this new marriage.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sisters and the English Household"
Copyright © 2018 Anne D. Wallace.
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Table of Contents
1. Alternative Domesticities: Revaluing the Sibling in the House;
2. "Out into the Orchard": The Departure of the Sibling in the House;
3. The Problem of the Sister in the House;
4. George Eliot’s Natural History of the English Family;
Notes; Works Cited; Index.
What People are Saying About This
“Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Wallace’s incisively argued and highly readable new book is the attention it trains on the economic agency an unmarried sister often enjoyed as a feme sole and the very real material benefits she could provide for the sibling’s family with whom she resided.”
Kelly Hager, Chair, Department of Women’s & Gender Studies, and Professor of English and Women’s & Gender Studies, Simmons College, USA
“In this insightful and groundbreaking text, Anne Wallace positions unmarried sisters as important figures in nineteenth-century Britain, whose financial and social worth she examines. Wallace’s brilliantly written and carefully researched study encourages us to reconsider the nineteenth-century family structure and to appreciate anew these oft-forgotten siblings.”
Sharon Joffe, Assistant Professor of English, Lamar University, USA