REVIEW: Incest and Influence: the private life of bourgeois England by Adam Kuper (Harvard University Press, 2010)

In July 1838 Charles Darwin, recently returned from his voyage on the Beagle, found himself contemplating marriage. ‘The arguments in favour were solid if unromantic. “Children – (if it Please God) – Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, – object to be beloved & played with. – better than a dog anyhow. – Home, & someone to take care of house – Charms of music & female chit-chat. – These things good for one’s health. – but terrible loss of time-“.’  Incest and InfluenceSo begins Adam Kuper’s Incest and Influence, setting the tone for what turns out to be a fascinating book on the influence of cousin-marriage in the ‘higher bourgeoisie’ of nineteenth-century England. The title is therefore somewhat misleading (though who could have passed up such an opportunity?) as although cousin-marriage would certainly be considered incest now, in the nineteenth century it was considered quite acceptable – if not preferable (the argument of this book, among others) in the context of limited social interaction for young single people, high business liability (enforcing the need to trust completely one’s business partners), and middle-class patterns of inheritance.

Indeed, one imagines cousin-marriage to be of high incidence in the nineteenth century. The most famous is probably between Queen Victoria and her first-cousin Albert Saxe-Coberg. It is fairly common knowledge that Charles Darwin married his first cousin (Emma Wedgewood) – and that his sister Caroline did the same, marrying Emma’s brother Joe Wedgewood. As the rich, and often deeply confusing, family trees in this book demonstrate, cousin-marriage was also a feature of the Wedgewood family more generally, of the Clapham Sect, the Rothschild family, the Barclays, Gurneys and Freames. Cousin marriage, meanwhile, was only one manifestation of tightly-knit ‘clan marriages’, whereby communities of close friends, religious associations and business contacts would intermarry – both within and outside of what we would now consider incest. Most famous of these were of course the Bloomsbury Group whose manifold overlapping sexual relationships formed the undercurrent (or indeed, ‘over-current’) of intellectual association. Cousin-marriage in particular was a constant preoccupation of literature and romance – as were the sometimes blurry boundaries between kin and non-kin (take Jane Austen’s Emma in which the title character’s love for Mr. Knightly is obscured by their in-law and apparent emotional connection as siblings – until the last possible moment: ‘Brother and sister – no indeed!’)

Charles and Emma Darwin

Charles and Emma Darwin

It is Kuper’s contention that cousin-marriage was a particular characteristic of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie (a contention opposed by Leonore Davidoff in her book on siblings Thicker Than Water, p. 61 – but more on that another time). ‘Among people born into the great bourgeois clans of nineteenth-century England, like the Darwin-Wedgewoods, more than one marriage in ten was with a first or second cousin’ (p. 18). Within that class, according to George Darwin (Charles and Emma’s fifth child), ‘cousin marriages are at least 3 times as frequent in our rank as in the lower!’ (quoted on p. 18). Figures for cousin marriage in the population at large are much more difficult to come by. In the late nineteenth century George Darwin went about what he considered a fairly systematic study (though I don’t think we would consider it so now!) and found that among the upper classes 4.2% of marriages were with first cousins (p. 97). He put the figure at 3.5% for the middle classes, 2.25% in the rural population, and 1.15% in London (p. 97).

George’s aim here, one close to his heart considering his own origins, was to discover whether there were any detrimental physical or psychological effects to cousin marriage. He concluded there was not; but nonetheless by the end of WWI cousin marriage was significantly on the decline – down from 1 in 25 marriages (among the upper middle classes) in the nineteenth century to 1:6,000 in the 1930s and 1:25,000 in the 1960s (p. 251). The reasons for this were not compellingly medical, according to Kuper, but reflected the liberalisation of the business environment (particularly the introduction of limited liability in the 1850s and 60s), the devastating demographic effects of the First World War, and the declining number of children per family (reducing, therefore, the pool of eligible cousins). ‘In the middle of the nineteenth century a person might have around forty first cousins. By the end of the century, the average number of cousins would be only about a dozen. Only half, of course, were of the right sex, and a number were disqualified by age difference. In the first decades of the twentieth century most young women would have had only a couple of marriageable first cousins, and the chances of these men surviving the war were not good’ (p. 253).

The Rothschild Family Tree

The Rothschild Family Tree

But why was cousin marriage such a compelling option in the nineteenth century then? ‘My argument in this book is that marriage within the family – between cousins, or between in-laws – was a characteristic strategy of the new bourgeoisie, and that it had a great deal to do with the success of some of the most important Victorian clans’ says Kuper (p. 27). Indeed, ‘the leading bourgeois clans played a great role in the history of this industrial and imperial Britain. Their preference for marriages within the family circle was a crucial factor in their success. The marriage pattern of the English bourgeoisie therefore played a significant part in making the nineteenth-century world’ (p. 27). While I’m not sure Kuper manages to completely convince on that claim, he certainly does show that in certain pockets of middle-class England, webs of marriage held together complex religious, business and intellectual networks. This was not always without its problems – sibling rivalry, resentful in-laws and family squabbles could have dire financial implications for families whose commercial interests were interwoven with family ties; and the hot-house atmosphere of closely intertwined families could be suffocating for some. But when it worked, it worked well, keeping money, reputation and connections within overlapping and mutually reinforcing family structures. This should not obscure the sense in which cousin marriage could also be preferable on an emotional level (something I think Kuper could have spent more time on), and ‘material considerations were not necessarily decisive, even in commercial families’ (p. 135), but certainly cousin marriage could be deeply beneficial to individuals and families – on a financial, emotional and cultural level.

Kuper’s book, then, makes for a fascinating read. It traces the literary (ch 1), legal (ch 2), theological (ch 2) and scientific history (ch 3) of ideas relating to incest; explores the business (ch 4), religious (ch 5), and emotional (ch 6) characteristics of the Victorian bourgeois ‘clans’ he defines by their propensity for intermarriage; and traces those clans’ descent into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the ‘bourgoise intellectuals’ of the mid-late nineteenth century (ch 7) and the famously louche world of the Bloomsbury Group (ch 8). More than an historical analysis of cousin marriage, however, this is a history of selected industrial, evangelical and intellectual clans who became important (and prolific) partakers of the practice – thereby solidifying their intellectual, evangelical and business connections – as well as reinforcing their particular emotional and cultural mores.

That is not to do the book down, however. This book is extremely enjoyable to read. Well-written, filled with fascinating (and sometimes hilarious) detail, fluid and compelling, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in nineteenth-century history – or family history more generally.

– Emily Manktelow

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