BOOK REVIEWS
Edited by George Justice

Keeping it in the Family

Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction

By Glenda A. Hudson.
St. Martin’s,1992. Reprinted 1999. xv + 143 pages.
Paperback. $19.95

A Century of Wills from Jane Austen’s Family, 1705-1806

With introductions by Jon Spence.
The Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2001. vi + 120 pages. 2 multi, 5 b/w, chart.
Paperback. $40 (Australian)

Reviewed by Anthony Monta.

Sibling Love and Incest is one part historical survey, one part Freudian analysis, and two parts a close reading of how sibling relationships develop in Austen’s fiction. In Hudson’s view, Austen’s narratives are “a series of reactions” to the narratives of her literary predecessors. In the book’s second chapter, Hudson sketches out the general importance of sibling ties in eighteenth-century English society (for survival, chiefly), introduces a few concepts from Freud’s Totem and Taboo, and mentions proscriptions against incest in the Book of Common Prayer. She then shows how a variety of 18th-century writers tended to sensationalize the possibility of incest in order to titillate or shock readers. By contrast, Austen’s depictions of sibling relationships, particularly incestuous ones (e.g., the marriage of first cousins Fanny and Edmund), are intended “to evoke moral awareness” and to “promote the concept of a relatively coequal and gender-free community.” To Hudson, the marriages at the end of Austen’s novels do not represent stasis, as was suggested by 18th-century writers, but rather “progressive, utopian” communities (or “sibships”) that have grown out of gradual recognitions of egalitarian, shared values.

The way Hudson shows how these sibships emerge is at times subtle. Particularly rewarding are demonstrations of how passages of sibling and romantic affection commingle, as in Mansfield Park. What is odd is that such demonstrations are not interpreted historically, as Hudson’s preface and introduction might lead one to expect, but psychoanalytically. Thus, Fanny’s love for Edmund “is a convenient displacement of her love for William,” Edmund’s unwillingness to love Fanny romantically is symptomatic of his “being governed by the unconscious taboo of incest,” Emma’s regard for Mr. Knightley is “symbolically oedipal.” Mr. Knightley, Edward, and Elinor are also repressed by the incest taboo. Psychoanalysis is applied to Austen as well. Noting the intensity of Jane’s relationship with Cassandra, Hudson observes that sisterly relationships in her fiction are “certainly not erotic or lesbian,” but the fates of sisters, at least in the early and middle fiction, “may be seen as works of wish-fulfillment.” The marriage of Fanny and Edmund is also an Austenian “fantasy.”

Hudson’s ability to address a range of 18th and 19th-century fiction is clear as she examines the incest motif in Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Lewis, Burney, Walpole, Sheridan, Bennett, Smith, Lee, Robinson, Brockden Brown, Byron, Shelley—all the way to Trollope and Hardy. She brings to attention intriguing historical documents such as the Church of England’s “Table of Kindred and Affinity,” which was printed on the back of the Book of Common Prayer and displayed in every church. Balancing psychoanalysis with connections to such historical elements would have made this already interesting book richer.

Readers interested in historical details will be delighted with A Century of Wills from Jane Austen’s Family. With it, the Jane Austen Society of Australia can justly be said to have taken the most illegible genre of English prose and made it readable and absorbing. They have gathered wills from both sides of Austen’s family, transcribed them from copies of originals in London’s Public Record Office, and presented them clearly with accompanying introductions and occasional extracts in facsimile. Jane Austen’s will is photographically reproduced in color. As a bonus, the book contains a pull-out geneological chart which makes it easy to pencil in “where the money goes” over time and make biographical notes such as are supplied by Jon Spence’s pithy introductions. What this book makes possible is the construction of a very clear and detailed understanding of how money and family were meant to intertwine across these generations. Accordingly, it seems likely, as Maggie Lane claims in the Foreword, that “no serious future Austen biography will be able to be written without consulting this book.”

Of the many absorbing things about A Century of Wills, one of the most compelling is the relationship between siblings and primogeniture. As Jon Spence observes, strict primogeniture was not always the rule, and even when it was, the death of an eldest son who was childless meant that wealth passed over to siblings. In the three most lucrative situations in the book, those siblings were women: Mary Leigh (a real-life Anne de Bourgh) left her brother’s immense Stoneleigh estate (£1.2 million in today’s money plus £100,000 a year) to Jane Austen’s uncle, James Leigh-Perrott; Cassandra and Martha Perrott renounced their claim to the Perrott estate, so it went to their brother, Thomas Perrott, who left it to his sister, Ann (who then left it to … lucky James Leigh-Perrott again). In other cases as well, siblings emerge as something of wild cards in an otherwise predictable, patriarchal deck.

The book is full of biographical curiosities and even mysterious figures with names like “Tryphena” to savor and fathom. The only complaint that can be made of it is that it is too short. Frequently there is a good deal of white space between introductions and transcriptions; in them, perhaps, Mr. Spence could have been prevailed upon to tease out more connections between the wills and the fiction.

But no doubt Austen’s most devoted readers will have a great deal of fun doing just that.


Anthony Monta lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

JASNA News v.18, no. 1, Spring 2002, p. 16

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