REVIEW: Thicker Than Water: Siblings and their Relations, 1780-1920 by Leonore Davidoff (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Cover Image‘Until the final decades of the twentieth century social scientists, historians, and intellectuals, like the general public, have tended to take for granted the family as either part of the material order and the heartland of accepted morality or as a problem area best left to policy makers and social workers’ (p. 13). Why? Mainly, according to Leonore Davidoff in her latest book Thicker Than Water: Siblings and their relations, 1780-1920, because the family ‘has long been a stand-in for women and children, groups already defined on the periphery of social action’ (p. 13). The family has been taken as a passive back-drop to the “real” preoccupations of history – politics, economics, wars and elite intellectualism.

Clearly, and thankfully, times have changed, and the family has become a sustained site of historical, sociological and psychological analysis. Nonetheless, it remains the case that the way the historiography about family has developed through various disciplines ( including anthropology, sociology, social policy, systems-theory, demography, psychology, and history) has been at the expense of attention to sibling (and broader familial and household) relationships. For example, anthropology has focused on ‘blood’; sociology on the nuclear family; demography on the home; and psychology on the mother-father-child triptych. Within history too, the field has developed in such a way as to obscure these more expansive family relationships – and attention to husband-wife/parent-child relationships or relationships that deviate from this so-called “norm” (homosexual, extra-marital etc.) have remained primary.

“Typical” sibling relationships remain secondary, assumed absences (as Juliet Mitchell would say). This methodology has been supported (and created) by the types of sources used in family history, and the social, institutional and legal frameworks they represent – patrilineal naming systems, primogenitive inheritance patterns, census data organised around the male-led household etc. Yet the nineteenth century is ‘”kinship hot”, featuring extensive, reliable, and well-articulated structures of exchange among connected families over many generations’ (p. 21). Nonetheless, ‘the way the central building blocks of kin networks – sibling ties – originated and their extension into following generations has [still] to be investigated in detail’ (p. 28).

* * *

This is where Davidoff’s excellent book comes in, seeking to explore and analyse the world of sibling relationships in the nineteenth century. More than a book on family and childhood, this book seeks to clearly and stringently interrogate the sibling relationship across the life-cycle and the generations, exploring its importance throughout life and throughout families. The book is helpfully divided into three clear sections: Part I: Exploring kin and their kind; Part II: The lattice of kinship: a historical case study; and Part III: Life’s longest relationship: essays on sibling themes.Contents Page

Thus, Part One investigates the historiographical and theoretical context of sibling relationships in academic discourse and literature.  While these expressed ‘multiple, sometimes contradictory, views about kinship, family and siblings’ (p. 44), this more than anything makes the case for a sustained historical analysis of siblinghood across the nineteenth century – rooting representation in lived experience.

Part Two thus explores the complex networks of kin that individuals inhabited in the nineteenth century, peopled by siblings, cousins, parents, aunts and uncles (single and married), nephews, nieces, grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, relatives-in-law and step-relatives. These networks were constant in their presence, but shifting and changing in their significance. And their significance was both huge and multi-faceted. Older siblings could care for younger siblings; younger siblings could care for parents, or nephews and nieces; aunts and uncles (married or single) could host nephews and nieces (and vice versa), could take on roles of mentorship and guardianship, and/or could contribute crucial capital, activate vital business connections, or provide emotional support in lieu or in addition to parental love. Networks and their roles changed as people lived, loved and died; and connections could equally remain significant throughout one’s life.

Part Three fleshes this out with a series of thematic essays on siblinghood, covering intimacy and incest, close marriage, gender, age and authority and sibling loss – rooting them in finely observed case studies (the Gladstones and the Freuds in particular).

* * *

Part Two was definitely my favourite section of the book, and Davidoff does an exceptionally good job of evoking the chaos of homes with 8-12 children: the order needed to feed, clothe and entertain them; the divergent, but must-be-met demands of a babe-in-arms, toddlers and young children, and older children requiring education and attention. ‘In Britain one-third of married women born in the early 1850s had at least seven live births; 10 to 15 per cent had ten or more children and these families contained a quarter of all children… If the perspective shifts to the individual child, then a larger proportion grew up surrounded by numerous siblings than the demographer’s snapshot implies. In other words, ten families containing a single child give ten children the experience of being an only child. But ten families with ten children in each produced 100 childhoods lived within a larger family type’ (p. 79). In short, for the middle classes ‘large surviving families were the experience of many people; either being a child in such a family or as parents of such numerous offspring – or both’ (p. 79).

photophoto 2Such (nuclear) families could span over twenty years of time – giving ample opportunity, therefore, for even more complex kin networks to develop between generations, with uncles/aunts and nephews/nieces of similar ages to each other, and with definite slippage between parent and sibling. Sibling relationships slid between being brotherly and sisterly, motherly and fatherly; while large kin networks were ‘activated’ by the emotional and material requirements of large families. All of this was of course further complicated by death, re-marriage, reconstituted families (consisting of step-fathers, step-mothers and step-siblings), and second families (‘yours’, ‘mine’, ‘ours’). The idea that the so-called ‘broken family’ is something new is clearly wildly fallacious.

It is little wonder then that uncles, aunts and cousins were drafted in, and that children were often drafted out – to kinfolk or older siblings. Meanwhile, large families inevitably led to multiple overlapping internal groups (such as sibling clusters) and complex power hierarchies (dictated by gender, birth-order and personality). Siblings could have very different financial, material and emotional experiences of their own family; and of course where there is intimacy, there is also discord and oftentimes resentment. All of this led to crowded, busy, bustling houses filled with children, adults (including extended kin – aunts, uncles etc.), and servants. When Eliza Branfill shut her 5-year-old daughter Leila in the closet for her ‘obstinate temper’, and tied her 4-year-old Atty to a chair for an hour for her ‘wicked temper’ (p. 93) I could almost (almost!) understand! ‘I am often well-nigh overwhelmed seeing my impotence, my ignorance, my weakness and my carnality’ she wrote in 1828. Well, quite.

This book is thus richly peopled – illustrated with anecdotes from across the social range, and across the manifold connections explored. Its vivid detail cannot be praised enough. To say that you get a real feel for what life could be like for the nineteenth-century middle classes is not to do its beautiful evocation of everyday life – as well as the long duree – any kind of justice. Exasperated mothers, domineering older brothers, and wayward younger sisters are all brought to life, and contextualised within the demographic and hierarchical context of nineteenth-century Britain. Extended families had a huge influence on people well into the twentieth century – and particularly the middle classes who tended to have long-lasting material, emotional and even residential links with extended kin. Large kin networks may have declined as the century progressed, and birth-rates fell, but their ramifications were long felt, as children from even ‘small’ families existed within the larger networks of their parents’ generation.

* * *

So where does all of this take us? Underpinning this book is an understanding of ‘family as a process, rather than a more static blueprint of relationships or pre-given roles’ (p. 16). They are the locus of early identity formation, the arena for continued relational identity dynamics (that is, the way identities, particularly – but not only – gender identities, evolve in relation to one another – and often in competition with one another), and sites of ‘labour, material, and financial organisation, not only emotional interaction’ (p. 17). They are threaded together by webs of social, moral and contractual obligations – of dependency, responsibility and intimacy. In the nineteenth century in particular they were interwoven with business, civic and political relationships. As Adam Kuper has so evocatively demonstrated, this was the era of the kinship web: the family dynasty that influenced business practices, marital choices and moral identities (including religious affiliations). Family dictated class position, economic agency and social standing. It was at once firm and inextricable, and fragile, partaking in a constant process of boundary definition in order to delineate its limits (particularly important due to its undercurrent of obligation).

Family was thus both “natural” and dependent on recognition. ‘It should be kept in mind… that identification is a two-way process. Belonging to a group necessitates recognition by its members that the applicant has a legitimate place within the group’ (p. 8). Having said that, underpinning the ‘cultures of relatedness’ are ‘the facts of human physiological life – the rates at which people are born and the length of their life span’ (p. 17). This of course has particular resonance in colonial families where recognition across the boundaries of legitimacy and social acceptability (particularly in mixed-race births) could be a complicated matter with very real emotional and material consequences.

photo(3)photo(3.2)Unsurprisingly, given Davidoff’s intellectual background, this is at heart a book about gender, which, like family, can also be seen as a process – and one of mutual and interactive construction. It is not really until Chapter Ten that this becomes explicit (though it is implicit throughout) when William Gladstone’s life is juxtaposed against that of his sisters Anne and Helen. The way that gender identities shaped the real lives of embodied beings is indeed perhaps best illuminated with siblings – individuals from the same socio-economic and cultural background whose differing life trajectories speak more to the power and consequences of gender difference than any other factor. This despite the fact that ‘birth order, personality, and life events may have cross-cut masculine advantage’ (p. 250).

Essentially, this book is a call for attention to extended families and their complex role and significance in nineteenth-century life (and beyond). After all, ‘it is still the fact that, for many people, siblings provide the place where physical and emotional contact has been closest’ (p. 338). It is primarily through sibling relationships that children learn ‘directly about differently sexed bodies as well as the rules and boundaries of consequent gender assignments’, about social interaction, hierarchy and loyalty, and how to identify with a group, through the cultural currencies of speech, dress and behaviours. It is often through siblinghood that we first experiment with boundaries, are exposed to (and fight against or conform to) gender roles, and learn about  competition, co-operation and negotiation. ‘In youth and beyond, sisters and brothers can be some of the fiercest to enforce gender, ethnic, national, and moral codes on each other and to pass judgement on their siblings’ lifestyles’ (p. 339). Meanwhile extended families often still oil the wheels of family economics, materiality and emotional intimacy. In absence and presence, families continue to shape everyday interactions and relationships. It is through those first interactions with siblings that we learn how to be collective individuals. Even more than that, siblings are, in the words of Douglas C. Breunlin (cited on p. 308), ‘the living remnant of our past, a buffer against the loss of our own history.’

– Emily Manktelow

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