On Wednesday 21st April a group of JASACTers and other aficionados attended Kippax Public Library to hear visiting U.S. academic Glenda Hudson deliver an entertaining and instructive talk on the topic “Sibling love in Jane Austen’s novels, revisited”. This was an update of her 1989 paper “‘Precious Remains of the Earliest Attachment’: Sibling Love in Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice'”.
In both her original paper and this talk Hudson pointed out the importance of sibling love in building character and plot in the novels. She strongly argued that sibling love (e.g Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Fanny and William Price) contributed to the success of subsequent marital relationships. The shared moral values and intellectual interests of siblings set up expectations of a similar meeting of minds between spouses, thus strengthening conjugal love. And, she suggested, in these marriages the previously socially accepted gender roles are redefined. But she also stated :
Several of the works conclude with relationships that can be called incestuous in that they are kept within the family
Incestuous? Of course, actual incest never occurs; nevertheless, there are incestuous overtones, e.g. Fanny and Edmund in “Mansfield Park”, Emma and Mr Knightley in “Emma”. In Regency times distinctions between in-laws and blood relationships were blurred: Georgina Darcy and Elizabeth became sisters upon the latter’s marriage; Charles Musgrove was Anne’s brother; to Emma, John Knightley was her brother so by extension ‘Mr’ Knightley was also; and Sir Thomas trustingly considered Fanny and Edmund were brother and sister because they were brought up together under his roof and in his family.
Incest, however, was a device used by many of Jane Austen’s contemporaries and especially in the Gothic and moralising novels. Hudson amused us with numerous examples of heroines saved at the 11th hour from incestuous unions and of melodramatic suicides when ’11th hour’ revelations did not occur until after the nuptials.
What was the preoccupation with incest, I wonder. Perhaps future eventualities possibly arising from the well-known promiscuity among some of the upper classes (including royalty) suggested these plots?
I invite other JASACTers present at Glenda’s talk to expand (either by comments here or additional posts) this all-too-brief report of the talk, and urge you all to read the original 1989 paper.