The Brother-Sister Culture
in Nineteenth-Century Literature From Austen to Woolf
By Valerie Sanders.
Palgrave, 2004. ix + 223 pages.
Hardcover . $65.00.
Reviewed by Glenda Hudson.
The aim of Valerie Sanders’ The Brother-Sister Culture in
Nineteenth-Century Literature From Austen to Woolf is “to
explore the many ramifications of brother-sister relationships during
the period of their greatest intensity, and to suggest that they are an
undeservedly neglected guide to understanding the complexity of gender
relations at that time.” Sanders’ book is clear and insightful and
should prove of interest to the general reader as well as to
specialists in the field.
The first three chapters focus on the historical context for the
formation of close brother-sister ties by concentrating on actual
families. In Chapter 1, Sanders explores the brother and sister culture
of the 19th Century by discussing sibling relationships in families
from the professional classes, including the Newmans, the Bensons, the
Stephens, and the Farjeons. Sanders notes the ambiguity of the
brother-sister relationship. She points out that for many Victorians “a
sibling of the opposite sex acted as a platonic marriage partner,” but
that sisters often remembered the paucity of expenditure on their
education (versus their brothers), while brothers remembered how they
worked all their lives while their sisters were cared for at home.
In Chapter 2, the author deals with collaborative brother-sister
relationships, such as those of the Lambs, the Wordsworths, the
Brontës, and the Rossettis. She shows that the brothers created
their sisters in their literature as idealized images of the Virgin
Mary and guardian angels, but they also presented them as outspoken,
energetic, bizarre, and wild figures. On the other hand, the sisters
portrayed their brothers as adored figures on pedestals, but they also
constructed drunken, unhappy, unsuccessful male figures.
In Chapter 3, Sanders turns to the description of brother-sister
relationships in the autobiographies of authors such as Margaret
Oliphant, Elizabeth Sewell, and Harriet Martineau. In each family, “a
pattern of rivalry and the rebuilding of alternative lifestyles” is
evident, especially as the sister became intellectually and
economically liberated in her later life.
The remaining four chapters analyze how the brother-sister relationship
is presented in literary texts. Perhaps the most interesting is Chapter
4, in which the author contemplates the brother as lover in works by
Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontës, Dickens, and George Eliot.
Sanders argues that “the fraternal model for an Austen marriage could
be seen as proposing new standards of masculinity.” For Sanders, the
ideal marriage in the 19th-Century novel imports into the family an
individual who is akin to a member of the family already (such as Mr.
Knightley or Fanny Price). In each of Austen’s novels, the ideal male
figures are shown to have excellent “domestic credentials” because of
their relationships with their sisters; moreover, they introduce their
wives to a community of relatives and help them to maintain connections
with their own siblings. The brother/husband “looks inward, to the
home; he cares and nurtures; he understands emotional need. . .
He is familiar, a man with real qualities of companionship.”
In contrast to the emotionally responsive male, the “brother-as-bully,
the John Reed type, who stands in his sister’s way and forbids access
to male privilege” is discussed in Chapter 5. Sanders examines such
“revenge fantasies” as Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland and Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? as
manifestations of deep hostilities within the gender balance of the
family. In Chapter 6, “Changing Places: Siblings and Cross-Gendering,”
Sanders contemplates such works as Gaskell’s North and South, Charlotte
Brontë’s The Professor,
and Branwell Brontë’s “Caroline” poems, demonstrating the ways
Victorian brothers probe “the implications of being their own sister,
and sisters the implications of being their own brother.” In these
works, the interchange of sexual identity permits the authors to
investigate aspects of themselves tabooed or unfitting for their
The final chapter deals with the poignant subject of brother-sister
relations in the First World War. Sanders examines the autobiographies
and fiction of Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Rebecca West, and
Katherine Mansfield and stresses how the brother-sister bond was
altered forever by the experience: “The War itself left sisters in a
state of permanent moral defeat: unable to claim equality with brothers
who had died for their country, they were emotionally immobilized,
symbolically adrift. Jealous retaliation was no longer an option in a
society where it would be unthinkable to complain of men as the favored
sex. The chance to answer back was finally cancelled.”
Sanders’ book is stimulating reading. With impressive scope, it covers
a great range of texts from fairy stories to major novels of the 19th
Century, from autobiographical works to short stories of the 20th
Century. While some of the works to which she alludes may not be well
known to all readers, this study is nonetheless a valuable work.
Glenda Hudson is Professor of English at California State University,
Bakersfield, where she specializes in Victorian literature and the
British novel. She is the author of Sibling
Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction (Macmillan, 1992;
paperback 1999) and co-author of A
Contemporary Guide to Literary Terms (Houghton Mifflin, 1997;
second edition 2003).
v.20, no. 3, Winter 2004, p. 20
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