- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

By Adam Kuper
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 296 pages

The word incest is a very loaded one, particularly in our early 21st century culture, where it summons up the sort of screaming headlines we’ve seen recently about a TV actress’s claim regarding her rock star father. But don’t let the lurid connotations of the word in this title scare you away from this thoughtful, revealing study about the kind of networking that existed long before the Internet, flourishing in the 19th century. As Adam Kuper, a distinguished British academic anthropologist, writes in his introduction:

“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 to do with the success of some of the most important Victorian clans. … 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 19th century world.”

His anthropological analysis thus results in sociological conclusions that are very revealing about culture — scientific, political, economic, social-scientific — in the Victorian age. Here is one scholar who is fearlessly far-ranging in his scope.

But, as we see from Kuper’s argument, the incest in this book is of the milder variety, mostly involving unions between cousins. But of course as knowledge of the science of genetics increased in this period, even this degree of consanguinity in marriage began to trouble people. Fascinatingly, we see in this book that those founding fathers of genetics Charles Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton themselves belonged to a family given to marrying within a tight circle. Charles Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, whose “oldest brother, Joe, had married Charles’s sister Caroline” and even the vicar who married them was “first cousin to both Charles and Emma.” No wonder, then, that Charles Darwin was both fascinated and vexed by the question of familial characteristics and heredity.

Kuper makes a fascinating connection between the development of scientific genetics and the good old snobbish English obsession with aristocratic lineage, an obvious link when you stop to consider it but not one that might necessarily spring immediately to mind. And on the subject of cousin marriage, he is adept at trawling the literature of the period to come up with apt quotations. For 20 pages, he comes up with countless references to this phenomenon as a commonplace from writers such as Jane Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, and George Eliot. But near the book’s conclusion, he notes how by the end of the 19th century,” scientific concerns [had] passed into general culture. In Thomas Hardy’s novel, “Jude the Obscure (1896) Jude, the self-made intellectual, courts his cousin Sue Bridehead, but he is troubled by the vague worry that “it is not well for cousins to fall in love.” When the cousins Holly Forsyte and Val Dartie marry in the third novel of Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga,” they bow to the eugenic imperative: “Being first cousins they had decided, or rather Holly had, to have no children.”

Even the scientifically savvy H.G. Wells married his first cousin, but perhaps because of his knowledge of biology had no children with her, unlike with his subsequent wife and the mistresses with whom he seemed bent on positively eugenic procreation.

But, as “Incest and Influence” makes clear, such scruples did not prevent many an influential nexus of such marriages taking place throughout Victorian society. (There are copious charts scattered throughout the text to prove this point.) Kuper ranges far and wide, shining a spotlight on how they benefitted such diverse merchant princely families as the Rothschild banking dynasty (which operated in France, Austria and Germany as well as England) and the Chamberlains of Birmingham, who went on to produce three important British statesmen. He looks at the Clapham set revolving around the great emancipator of slavery in the British Empire, William Wilberforce, and at the British royal family, where cousin marriage seemed almost to be the rule rather than the exception!

By the time Kuper gets to the last folk under his microscope, the Bloomsbury Group, which evolved out of the 19th century and almost defined the modern 20th century literary ethos in Britain, you see just how plastic his definition of incest is. For here, there is a whole new type of connection that binds families together other than consanguinity, although it’s at work there, too. Same-sex unions and families linked by “open marriages” and the like contrive to create a much more complex but no less straitening network to be coped with and, if necessary, its bonds challenged or sundered. But it is also apparent that once again, it is the network, the nexus, the coming together of diverse but linked entities, that provide heft, and strength and even the necessary definition. For who could argue with the Bloomsbury Group, in the broadest sense an incestuous creation of the first order, being greater as a whole than the sum of its parts? And so providing the ultimate proof of Professor Kuper’s stimulating thesis.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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