The author is enormously erudite and seems to have read every major - and many minor and all-but-forgotten - Victorian novels.
Many of his examples come from the world of fiction, which reflected reality as the authors perceived it. He is an authoritative and breezy guide to the world he describes.
Incest and Influence
One of the family alliances he examines concerns the Wedgewoods, who built a pottery and china empire and were linked through marriage to the Darwins, who gave the world Charles Darwin. The complex webs of marriages are diagramed through family trees, but they eventually became a little too much for this reader.
One interesting sidelight illuminated here concerns the protracted battle around a provision in the law that prohibited marriage between a man and any of the sisters of his deceased wife. The reason behind that ban derived from a highly questionable Biblical interpretation that regarded husband and wife as "one flesh.
Marrying one of them after the death of a wife would be incestuous. At that time, when many women died young in childbirth or from other illnesses, men often turned to their wives' sisters for help in the household, and marriage was often seen as a convenient and desirable solution for all parties. Such marriages were common in the United States and in British colonies where they were legal. Lifting the ban in Britain, Kuper writes, was first mooted in , and the debate raged for 65 years until Parliament finally passed the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act of A ban against women marrying the brothers of their deceased husbands remained in place until This last group jarred a little because, not only was it set chronologically and hence historically in a different era, but also because bonking each other did not carry these same weight of marrying each other in order to cement family interests.
Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England
Darwin is a crucial figure in this study because, not only was his family thoroughly enmeshed in the tangled web of cousin and in-law marriage, but his own theory of sexual selection and inherited characteristics led to a re-evaluation of the dangers of cousin marriage, although members of the wider Darwin family took opposing views on the dangers of first-cousin marriages. The book closes with a fast-forward description of legislative and demographic changes over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It points out during the s the eugenics movement condemned cousin marriage and these scientific concerns passed into the general culture, leading to a decline in cousin-marriage numbers in both middle and upper class families. The imbalance of the sexes after WWI also affected cousin marriage, and the reduced size of families meant that there were fewer marriagable cousins to choose from anyway.
Incest and Influence The Private Life of Bourgeois England
It would seem, then, that the convoluted marriage patterns that he describes in the three family constellations were rather more exceptional than he suggests, and that a more important question might be why nineteenth-century novels emphasized cousin and in-law marriage so much as a plot device when the statistical reality was so different.
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