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Kinship as a categorical concept: a case study of nineteenth century English siblings.

The late twentieth century's post-modern culture has produced a general questioning about boundaries and categories as part of the general turning away from a "master narrative." This has been associated with growing unease about accepted hierarchies. The concepts "family" and "kinship" have been subjected to this questioning:
 Is it [kinship] an empirical set of overlapping relations that are
 genetic, genealogical and social? Or is it the meanings of
 relationships that must have kin-specific content? Is it a set of
 symbolizing actions whose emotional charge encourages enduring and
 practical ends? Or is it simply a set of questions posed by Western
 social scientists using their own unrecognized cultural
 presuppositions as a basis for their models? (1)

After many years of eclipse, the last decade has witnessed a renewed intellectual interest in both the family and kinship. Anthropologists in the West have begun to apply their skills and techniques to these topics within their own societies. (2) Sociologists of the family as well as social psychologists have begun to incorporate issues around gender, age, "race," ethnicity, and power into what had been the low status or rather sterile "sociology of the family."

Why this has happened is complicated. Undoubtedly some of the revised interest stems from the radical political movements since the 1960s. Feminism, the campaigns of gays and lesbians, racial and ethnic minorities and the nationalism emerging in former colonial societies have opened narrowly-defined, static boundaries of familial and kin relations. Above all, changes in family life itself in the last part of the twentieth century--co-habitation, high divorce rates, women's massive entry into the work force, continued low birth rates, increased longevity and the impact of reproductive technologies--all have brought into question beliefs about the family and its natural foundations. (3) There are now suggestions for re-conceptualising family as a process, (4) as a web of lived relationships, or as categories and roles that have to be activated to be meaningful. (5)

Meanwhile, and somewhat paradoxically, recent increased knowledge of genetics has stressed the physicality of kinship ties, a position reinforced by the claims of the now fashionable neo-evolutionists. (6) The emergence of such complicated--even competing--understandings points to a recognition that kinship is basically a "categorical concept" whose content depends on beliefs and knowledge about a range of topics from physiology to the cosmos.

These revisions and reinterpretations apply forcibly to the issue of sibling relationships. The puzzling question of why siblings have been ignored and down-played across disciplines from demography to psychoanalysis has only now begun to be addressed. Anthropologists point out that modern Western culture with its emphasis on forward time and the notion of progress concentrates on filiation, especially the relationship of father to son, while those thought systems which understand time as cyclical might be more open to lateral linkages. (7) Literary scholars among others have noted the centrality of brother and sister to a wide spectrum of creation myths from ancient Egypt to modern Latin America. Within many of these myths the themes of twins and doubling are particularly striking. (8) Many of these "origin" stories use the sexual union and reproduction through brother-sister incest as the foundation of society. (9)

As late as 1996, a sociologist noted that "neither friendship nor kinship has been studied very extensively" (10) but there has been something of a re-discovery of the importance of personal relationships, mainly in the context of "relationships of choice," as in the couple. (11) In literary studies, the theme of siblings has been taken up mainly in an ad hoc manner, from such well-known relationships as Virginia and Vanessa Stevens, Jane and Cassandra Austen, Charles and Mary Lamb, or William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Only recently has there been more general interest as in Valerie Sanders' book length study of brother and sister culture in English nineteenth century literature. (12) Feminists have been particularly struck by the influence of aunts in the lives of writers and women active in philanthropy and politics. (13)

Psychologists have recently admitted that even within therapeutic practice, sibling relations have been noted only in passing despite their obvious presence in everyday life. (14) But it is in the heartlands of psychoanalysis where the omissions have been most glaring. Juliet Mitchell first raised this issue in her general study of hysteria, followed by a volume devoted to the topic in 2003. (15) In the latter she sees the neglect of siblings as part of the way all relationships are subjugated to vertical understandings and that this "may be a major means whereby the ideologies (including sexism) of the brotherhood are allowed to operate unseen." (16)

The object-relations analyst, Prophecy Coles, in her 2003 book on the subject, asks where our siblings have gone. "Why do they not feature as significant figures in psychoanalytic accounts of the inner world?" And one of the answers she gives is that we may "fear the power of sibling relationships" which may, in fact, be "more passionate than parental relationships." (17) Ann Shearer, a neo-Jungian, notes that "something is going on around this topic of brothers and sisters ... an increase in interest that seems more than simply coincidental." (18)

Historians, too, have begun to realize the presence and importance of sibling and cousin relationships, as well as the notion of friendship as a major component of both economic and domestic middle class life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (19) David Sabean and his colleagues have held a series of conferences and discussions leading to the conclusion that there were hitherto unrecognized major changes in social, political and economic structures in Europe from around the mid-eighteenth century onwards in which kinship played a crucial role.

These developments entailed a shift from "clan to kindred" from ancestors, or lineage, to interlocking exchanges of horizontal kin groups which accompanied the shift from closed estates and hierarchy to free floating capital and the formalizing of offices through more metritocratic criteria. Within this general transition, by the early nineteenth century across Europe sibling and cousin relationships reached a peak of intensity reflected at emotional and cultural levels, including a high incidence of cousin marriages and minority pattern of brothers from one family marrying sisters from another or brother and sister from one family marrying sister and brother from another. (20)

There remains on-going discussion about the extent and timing of these developments. For centuries, siblings had been and continued to be important nodal points for aristocrats and peasants alike. However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they seem to take on increased saliency, particularly within the middle strata. Comparative work from across Europe--which hints at a similar situation in North America and Australia--has begun to confirm what might be called the "over-determination" of sibling relationships among the late eighteenth and nineteenth century bourgeoisie from Scandinavia to Italy, and across religious cultures, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.

A crucial dimension of these new insights about kinship and the sub-level of sibling relationships has been the role of gender. This absence is startling, once the basis of kinship relations is understood to be predicated on an already assumed "gender order." (21) Within all kinship systems, gender assignment, however rigid or flexible, becomes a building block on which the edifice rests. When, as in the modern West, masculinity is associated with intense individualism, access to economic opportunity and status gained through participation in the non-domestic sphere, gender assumptions form the way the whole society operates, in public as well as more obviously within familial and kin relationships.

Unsurprisingly, concepts of siblinghood are coloured by underlying notions of gender; especially since siblings, in many cases, spend so much of their infancy and childhood together, the life-period when gender identities are being formed. Since masculinity and femininity are almost always culturally evaluated in some hierarchical pattern, siblings try out and adopt positions of power vis-a-vis each other on the basis of their gender. Since sibling position is also often aligned with age and birth order, here too, power relations are played out.

Brothers and sisters can represent models for us. We strive to be like them but they can also represent rejected traits, values and behaviours; they can repel as well as attract. There are several reasons for the inherent tension between identification and repulsion among siblings. High on the list is the obvious rivalry for parental time, energy, emotion and material resources. In some cases, identification with a sibling takes the form of rebellion against parents and authority figures, one young rebel following another. Or in rejecting a sibling's rebellion, the sister or brother becomes a strong conformist. In the shadow of a sister or brother, decisions are made about the most significant life choices. The emotions generated by sibling relationships are undoubtedly intense, long lasting and work at a deep psychic level. (22) However these general features are played out very differently depending on time and place.

Siblings in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century England

In this period brothers and sisters shared long-term childhood experiences within a household and formed intense relationships. Such emotional involvement inevitably raises the issue of incest, a highly complicated concept now being re-evaluated. (23) Gender assignments to rigid codes of masculinity and femininity meant that cross sex siblings experienced deeply affected senses of identity in emotional terms as well as behaviour. The comparison between the treatment of different children in a family left deep resentments and when unquestioned in terms of gender, fuelled girls' bitter feelings about the injustice of their position. Mary Wollstonecraft at the end of the eighteenth century railed that "such indeed is the force of prejudice that what was called spirit and wit in him [her brother], was cruelly repressed as forwardness in me." (24) In this milieu, the support of the family enterprise as well as family home was shared by brothers and sisters, sometimes as young adults since often marriage was delayed until their late twenties. A minority of brothers and sisters who didn't marry lived together all their lives. Siblings shared the family's inheritance as well as contributing to the family income.

Unlike the Victorian stereotype of elder brother/younger sister, until the gradual fall in the birth rate to the two child norm of the 1920s, large numbers of children in a family--up to ten or more who survived--meant that the older siblings acted as an intermediate generation between parents and younger children. The elder siblings provided care, leadership and control using a range of behaviour from autocratic bullying to loving guidance and practical help, often in lieu of ailing or dead parents. Siblings organised courtship for each other and the brothers and sisters of friends often married. Sisters' husbands became partners; brothers' partners became sisters' husbands.

As models brothers and sisters became the archetype of relationships between men and women but unsullied by sexuality. As in all such modelling, a few selective features were picked out. In representations of the ideal sibling relationship, invariably, only one pair, the brother and the sister, is chosen. And, just as in the George Eliot's poem, "Brother and Sister," the brother is invariably the elder.
 He was the elder and a little man
 Of forty inches, bound to show no dread,
 And I the girl that puppy-like now ran
 Now lagged behind my brother's larger tread (25)

For a provincial clockmaker's daughter, brother and sister represented not only the "winning tenderness of pure love," but also "the respect due to superiority and the sense of weakness on one part and the consciousness of power, affection and support on the other" as a "protector, a guardian and a friend" the brother will "mark the conduct, the opinions, the principles, the temper and even the little foibles of his sister," especially when it comes to choice of marriage partner. Her part is to influence him subtly through her winning, dependent femininity. (26)

What this kind of imagery leaves out is the richness and complexity of brother-sister relationships, especially in such large families and spread amongst several people, about how love, hate, jealousy, self-sacrifice, domination, service, loyalty, betrayal were melded into this highly charged tie. Significantly, in this idealisation, seniority is equated with assumed age and the masculine with both.

In middle class families, whether their temperaments and talents fitted or not, boys were sent out into the world for education, training, work or travel as befitted a masculine identity. Their sister's lives were seen in terms of home duties and pleasures. Brothers acted as "windows on the world" for their sisters who were expected to look on and encourage. When the two sons of a provincial engraver left for London, their sister's verse recorded:
 A sister's affections, the hopes and the fears
 That flutter in turns in her heart
 When a Brother sets out on his stormy career
 What magic of words can impart? (27)

Inevitably, the privileges--legal, economic and in terms of experience--of masculinity effected power relations between brothers and sisters but these were complicated by countervailing resources of age, personality and relationship to parents or other siblings on the part of sisters.

A Case Study: The Gladstone Siblings

To explore these themes more fully, it is instructive to take one family as a case study. The Gladstone siblings were typical members of the aspiring middle strata deeply imbued with the language and beliefs of their intensely felt Evangelical religion. Here was a household whose every day life was steeped in God's immediate presence, constantly aware of sin and yearnings for redemption. They have been known principally through their famous and much studied prime minister and youngest son, William Ewart who was raised in this atmosphere amidst the wealth of commercial Liverpool. Their father was a merchant made good with political ambitions, eventually attaining a knighthood. His wife was from a prosperous Scots family with gentry connections.

Parents: [Sir] John Gladstone (b. 1763-d. 1851) married Anne Mackenzie Robertson (b. 1771-d. 1835)

Anne Mackenzie b. 1802-d. 1827
Thomas b. 1804-d. 1889
Robertson b. 1805-d. 187?
John b. 1807-d. 1863
William Ewart b. 1809-d. 1898
Helen Jane b. 1814-d. 1880

The couple's first child, Anne Mackenzie, born in 1802, became the eldest of six; more would have followed but their mother's health never sufficiently recovered, which was not unexpected since she began childbearing at age 30 and produced the six within the next 15 years. The family was dominated by Sir John, who was a good deal older than his ailing, invalid wife and was 45 at the time of William Ewart's birth in 1809. Thus in many ways William's elder brothers stood as buffers between him and the full impact of John Gladstone's alarming personality.

Anne, seven years his senior, had a semi-maternal relationship to William. Not unusually, Anne, at age eight, became William's godmother. She took her duties seriously, both with his intellectual and religious development, an attention beyond the capacity of their mother and outside the interests of their father. For William, Anne was the embodiment of the Evangelical view of life. He always remembered her telling him as a small boy that when he arrived in heaven, St Peter would ask him to give an account of how he had spent every minute in his life. (28) Despite instilling a life-long sense of guilt, she was deeply sympathetic to his struggling efforts to live up to the Evangelical moral order. Above all, she listened to and soothed his doubts about his faith, his view of the world, himself and his capacities.

At the age of 14 William left this sheltered and somewhat puritanical home milieu for Eton. Sir John's ambitions included sending all his sons to this most aristocratic of public schools whatever their talents and inclinations. Quite aside from the formal teaching at Eton, William had to face the rough-housing of everyday school life. In his later teens he had taken a leading part in the Literati Society where "the atmosphere was both friendly and competitive, with an especial emphasis on prowess of presentation and argument ... both a game and a high art." (29) Thus William's schooling, both formal and informal, is an especially dramatic illustration of the contrast between teenage boys and the stay-at-home girls in this strata of society.

William felt Anne's values and warm personality a bulwark against the aggressive, lewd atmosphere of the public school. Her support and interest is indicated in their extensive correspondence while he was at school in which she relayed all sorts of home news including that of their grandmother's death, as the mother was too upset to do so. Intense interest was shown in all William's doings, his friends, trials and accomplishments as in his first debate at age 15: "We all congratulate you on the happy commencement of your oratorical career! You may be assured of our best wishes." (30) Anne kept all her brothers up to date on each other's affairs, their comings and goings. Despite much ill health and her deep religious convictions, she comes across as a sprightly, warm and loving presence in the family.

While one brother, Robertson, went into the firm the others followed their own careers, with John pulling away from the close family to go to sea. Young William was left to carve out a place for himself. Anne listened, advised, admonished, and, against her parents' wishes, permitted card playing and alcohol but warned her young brother against being ensnared by the theatre, a pleasure he had been introduced to by an Eton tutor. Anne was instrumental in William's moral development as he prepared for his Confirmation, and especially when he was between eighteen and twenty. At that time, for example, he recorded in his diary that he had received a "long and most excellent and pious letter from my beloved sister--unworthy am I of such an one," as well as long having conversations with her when he went home for the holidays. (31) This type of moral overlooking by a home-based elder sister was by no means unusual. (32)

Above all, it was Anne whose firm belief in her younger brother's destiny and future greatness helped William through difficult decisions about a political career, decisions made more complicated by pressures from his father. But by the time such career choices became immanent, Anne was dead. In February 1827, just after William had begun his first term at Oxford, he was summoned home to attend her deathbed and funeral. Anne remained for William an icon of all that women could mean, a femininity coloured by unworldly grace. A few days after her death he recorded that he felt so apathetic, blaming himself for torpor of mind and habitual selfishness: "How unworthy I had been of the love and attention which the departed saint had honoured me." (33) Into the late 1870s, he remembered Anne's birthday in his diary.

William's--and to a lesser extent the elder brothers Thomas and Robertson's--relationship with the baby of the family, Helen Jane was a complete contrast. Four years younger than William and 12 years Anne's junior, she was, in many ways, of a different generation. She was a bright and spirited, sometimes wilful, youngster. As she grew, William acknowledged that he saw in her many of his own difficult traits, for example, lack of self-control. While Anne lived she took charge of Helen's life, including her home-based education, recognising that her young sister had a "no common share of talent and apprehension which it has pleased God to gift her with." (34) But with Anne's increasing frailty she could no longer cope and Helen, in her mid-teens, was left without any formal instructors, duties or guidance.

While William's deep distress and melancholy at Anne's death is recorded in detail, Helen's loss has to be imagined. Along with Anne's clothes, Helen had inherited her position as daughter at home, aid to the timid, invalid mother, companion and "little housekeeper" to her father. Her loss was compounded by measuring herself against the much older and universally admired sister, now haloed in death that only emphasized her sense of inadequacy. "Each day teaches me how weak, how powerless I am and how sweetly bright my sister shone." (35)

William had been the baby of the family for four and a half years before Helen's birth and as such had particularly revelled in the attention of his elder sister and brothers. But, having been displaced, he then had the satisfaction of Helen's childhood worship of this older brother who played with her on his holidays from Eton and when he returned to school she missed him sorely, even calling her canary after him. (36) During Anne's final illness, Helen wrote to William that she "now cannot avoid looking to you as my principal friend, one day, perhaps my stay." (37)

In the autumn following Anne's death, when Helen was 14 and he going on 19, William proposed a covenant between himself and his young sister, that they "have a need to perform for our mutual benefit one of the most painful, one of the most profitable, and one of the most sacred offices of friendship--we have agreed to tell one another's faults, small and great, without fear or favour." This took the form of a ten-page letter, wrapped in their mutual religious justification, and in which he especially addresses her dress, her use of time and of money, first cautioning her generally: "And may you carry through all your dealings with all men the blessed principle of subordination and resignation of your own desires, and unqualified disregard of your own conventions; when they come into collision with duty." He ends by recommending again his "old nostrum" of "appropriating specific seasons to specific purposes," in fact particularly difficult for a young teenager without purpose, work or study to carry out. (38) Nevertheless, Helen, overcoming her "natural pride"' felt thankful to this adored elder brother that "I was not left alone, and suffered to stray further without being warned." She can only cast herself upon the promised strength of the Heavenly Father. Meanwhile, her darling brother is "her support, comfort and guide, from whom she can never fear anything but kindness." (39)

The roots of William's determination to guide and control Helen's moral and spiritual development are complicated. While at Oxford, he had joined a group of young men influenced by the Tractarian movement, who planned to do good in society and had drawn lots for areas of activity. William had been allotted rescue work with "fallen women." This developed into a life-long preoccupation that drove him to wander the streets at night to engage with prostitutes, an obsession that has bewildered commentators on his political career ever since but which has clear ties with his developing sexuality combined with sense of sin. (40) While undoubtedly some of his fascination with the sexual underworld was motivated by a genuine desire to "uplift" these women, it was extended to the use of pornography, both activities followed by self flagellation that hint at a typically Victorian sense of guilt. (41) Something of this is reflected in the intensity of his absorption with Helen's state of mind to the point where his parents became worried and asked Tom to write to William to desist from "religious speculations" with Helen. (42)

William's career through Oxford continued to flourish through to his election as an M.P. while Helen's early womanhood was spent at home as companion to her invalid mother and now elderly father. Five years later her mother had died and Helen had seen her father through a critical eye operation. Throughout her twenties, William continued to exhort and instruct her but with less and less effect. Helen, intelligent, high-spirited, and despite her patchy education, well read in several languages, was deeply religious, spending her energies that could be spared from the family mainly furthering Anglican causes.

Throughout this time Helen seems to have suffered from a variety of minor illnesses including hints of an eating disorder. Much of her life at this time was spent travelling to be under the care of one physician or another. All the brothers, except John who was away at sea, took an intense interest in their young sister mainly in the form of anxieties about her health.

In 1838, Helen, then 24, had taken a step away from invalidism to independence by gaining her father's permission to travel--properly chaperoned--on the continent. There she met and became engaged to a Polish aristocrat. Although she significantly described him as "a stouter edition of William," it would have been a marriage entirely removing her from her family's reach. (43) However his people refused to sanction the match and she was forced to return to her father's house. There, her condition deteriorated again and bouts of illness sent her to try the ministrations of a variety of medical men. An unmarried aunt was assigned to be her companion, relaying constant bulletins about her condition as they moved from London to various spa towns. Helen was under constant surveillance; every item of her diet and minute of her day was overseen and reported on by doctors and carers. Her attempts at fasting and her preference to slip out for early morning worship as part of her intense religious commitment were negated on medical grounds.

After a series of attempts to find a suitable--and willing--bride, by 1839 William was married. His wife, Catherine Glynne, was the sister of one of his close student friends from a wealthy landowning family. Catherine was always uneasy about William's seemingly obsessive concern with Helen, whom she dismissed as a tiresomely hysterical young woman.

Then in the spring of 1842 came a bombshell for William. Helen, age 27, had been received into the Roman Catholic Church. William's anti-Catholicism was deep-seated. Quite aside from the damage to his political prospects by the taint of popery, this was anathema to his Evangelical soul. (His beloved sister Anne, like her mother, had been bitterly opposed to Catholic emancipation in the 1830s and considered Catholicism despicable.) To make matters worse, William only learned of Helen's apostasy from his father who told him that a priest had approached him with the news that Helen was to be received into the Church. An announcement in the press headlined, "Conversion to Popery," regretted that Miss Gladstone, the sister to the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, had been admitted a Member of the Roman Church (44) thus allowing the world to "read the record of our shame." (45) William's anger at Helen's move was accentuated by his awareness of many high profile Anglicans' increasing sympathy for Catholic ritual and dogma, including some in his Oxford contemporaries. (46) Helen's conversion also coincided with a period of uncertainty in his career as he had been voted out of Parliament and his financial affairs were going badly.

His mood is expressed in a ten-page letter to Helen that indicates his fury, hurt and feeling of abandonment:
 The recollection that there was a time--although many years back--when
 we had, or seemed to have, religious union and communication, makes me
 feel that the event announced yesterday demands from me a few words. I
 to send upon you, and upon us: stunned but not surprised, for causes
 which have been very long in operation ... That which I have to
 testify solemnly to you, to you the fruit of my mother's womb, and the
 beloved associate of my earliest years is this: you have not been an
 inquirer: you have not endeavoured to inform and discipline yourself
 respecting the immense issue upon which you have found what you think
 to be a judgement: you have not used the faculties which God gave you
 in abundance for His glory ... Have you yet to learn, that it is along
 the path of obedience and docility, of self denial and self
 subjugation, that God leads His children into truth, and that it is to
 those, who use and walk by the light they have that he gives more
 light? (47)

She has claimed that "private judgement" brought her to this conclusion and that this is the right of Protestants. But, he claims, she was bred in the Church of England and where does she think this notion of private judgement is found there? The articles of the Church of England "has authority in controversies of faith; but these perhaps you have not read. You have, as it seems by some marvellous Divine ordering, been led to confess that the act you meditate is one of private judgement. But I say it is even less than this. It is one of private will. You have followed instinct and bias." (48) He rhetorically admits that she will ask by what right is he to dogmatise? He answers himself that his smattering of inquiry although narrow is wide compared to hers. Although he knows she has acted sincerely, this very fact is the proof of her deep delusion.
 Mark again my words. This delusion is not your first. It is the
 completion of a web, which for many years you have been weaving
 around you, and which by progressive degrees has enveloped all your
 faculties and deprived you of true vision. Not in religion alone, This
 last step was not needed to prove, but merely illustrates the fact,
 that you are living, and have long been living, a life of utter self
 deception. Not in religion alone--but in all bodily, in all mental
 habits--in all personal and in all social relations.... For a very
 long time you have not known what study is; the whole action of your
 naturally powerful mind has been dissipated and relaxed ... of the
 subtle and wayward will which has for so long distorted your life
 and destroyed its liberty, its peace and usefulness--alas!... is the
 latest [delusion] born of a whole family of delusions, pervading your
 life from the highest concerns of your soul down to your very diet and
 clothing. (49)

He will now open to her the "sealed book" of his opinion of her, that is "that five years have now elapsed since, in discussing matters relating to your health, I told my Father that I regarded you as morally beside yourself, and urged upon him that the only way to restore you to yourself ... was to put constraint and coercion upon you." (50)

The almost sadistic impetus behind William's attitude to this younger sister are evident in his diary entry for the day following writing the letter: "I write, as one would drag a woman by the hair, to save her from drowning. The best I can hope for is that she should find the words keen and piercing; such ills as these are not curable except by searching pain." (51) He then became even more incensed when Helen's persistent illnesses, including partial paralysis, were miraculously cured by the ministrations of a Catholic priest.

Fortunately for Helen, her father, while extremely anxious about her condition, including her increasing use of laudanum and alcohol, took her conversion seriously. Sir John refused William's demands that she should be banished from the family home and allowed her to receive priests in his house and agreed that she should not be boarded in a convent. (52)

The year 1845 was one of crisis. In July Helen, now aged 31, once again had escaped to Germany but was followed by William, despite the fact that, being out of office, his political career needed nursing and Catherine had very recently given birth to another daughter. There he trailed after her from town to town. To an extent, his heavy-handed concern is understandable as Helen's addiction to opium was growing but the intensity of his punitive hostility still seems out of proportion. In his pursuit, William was later joined by their brother Thomas and had extracted a letter from their father giving him authority to fetch her home as well as from her English priest telling her to obey her father's wishes. (53) By October, Sir John had threatened to cut off her funds. For days she locked her door against the brothers and the doctor, drinking any opiates she could get hold of. If William forced his way in, he might find her paralysed in both arms and speechless. While in this extremity his father pleaded with him to treat her with "mildness and consideration." But William was writing to Catherine that nothing "except the expedient we have so often talked of--an engagement to universal obedience" would be of any use and that "the channels of common interest and feeling between a brother and sister are frozen up." (54)

During this period, Thomas kept a record of Helen's condition. Clearly she was in a state of breakdown. Once he found her squatted on the ground with nothing on but her night shift, eating on the floor. Pitifully she had told the doctor that she feared people would think she was going mad. She gave a letter to her German doctor giving him full power to restrain her for her health, even against her own will, but she hoped he would not enable force by others (obviously William if not Thomas). The doctor gave her an ultimatum that she see her brother and return home or go to Italy with him. At this, Helen effectively dismissed him. Thomas felt that she "will dislike anyone whom she cannot influence and rule over." (55) A note from Helen in January 1846 states lucidly and firmly: "My dear Tom--my answer is given, and to my father directly. I must beg to decline any personal discussion with yourself or with William and I do so from no want of right feeling to either you or him." (56)

By December, doctors were advising against the proposal that Helen be given a limited income from her father and left to her own devices but should be "committed to the command of herself entirely to others appointed by her father." If the former course were taken, the fear was that she would get into debt and "a great many misfortunes" might happen to her if she was allowed to act independently. (57) Pushed to extremes, Helen made a bid to escape. The exact order of events is not clear but it seems that by January 1846 she tried to go to some of her own Catholic friends. William had had a note from a Roman Catholic lawyer asking for an interview about Helen "which he very properly declined." (58) Thomas discovered that, through the offices of her maid, Helen was trying to sell some jewellery to finance this plan. He immediately took steps to dismiss the servant telling Helen that he would personally settle her wages, also chiding his sister "not to allow your fire and candles to remain burning late at night as has latterly been the case." (59)

The bewildered Thomas noted that Helen "says it would be death for her to stay where she is but where will she go ... she is fierce against all of us--told Estelle (the maid) that she would bring her brothers to their knees to her before a month." (60) To his chagrin, she insisted on going out unaccompanied by a manservant or let a cab be sent for--and in an "especially sulky and haughty" manner went off to her friends and had not returned by 10 p.m. (61) The next week she was still trying to sell her jewels going out "quite alone and ordered a cab to drive to the Auction Rooms" although Thomas suspected this might be a blind designed to cover up her real purpose in searching for the dismissed Estelle, her ally against the family. (62)

By mid-January, now firmly back in England, Helen had been confessed by her English priest, who the brothers disgustedly learned was backing her up in her present course. And she was meeting Estelle at the home of the Catholic lawyer. They learned she intended to go to Bath with him and his family accompanied by Estelle. But all this was gleaned from servants and other informants since she refused any communication with her family. At this point, Helen seems to have several doctors on her side who the brothers believed had been completely taken in by her and they did not trust a word she is supposed to have said. They also suspect she has sold family valuables, although trusting not their "Mother's pearls or diamonds." At last on January 19, Thomas heard from his father that Helen had really written to him--but only "with sheets of grievances." William had also had a note announcing her departure "after she was gone with a friend by the advice of her Doctors," having said again that she could not endure life in the London family home. (63) But eventually some compromise was reached and Helen agreed to go back with her father. Gradually her health and peace of mind began to return

At the end of 1846, Helen wrote to William from the Gladstone family home in London, saying she felt she should "no longer delay to express my feelings towards you ... I do, distinctly and earnestly, beg you to forgive me, in the first place, all my offences towards yourself ... I believe that I have done you great injustice and even if I had not been mistaken in my sentiments respecting you, I should equally regret my own conduct towards you.... I can now only say that my thoughts and feelings concerning you are of unmixed respect for the past and for the future, anxious wishes that you know how much in the depths of my heart I value your love and your esteem; how painfully I have felt any barrier between us. I feel that I have no other claim upon you, than that of our common blood and of your charity and if these may so far avail I ask you to try and not regret my father's great and unhoped for fondness towards me ... I have to thank you for the kindness, with which during these two days you have as it were, taken me on trust--If my father, who has so much to forgive, can pardon, may I not hope from you?" (64)

Despite such approaches, William remained convinced that Helen's whole life commitment via her conversion was not genuine. He told their father that she was not "a convinced Roman Catholic" but "under a thirst, rather than acting on a distinct idea," that her feelings were "emotional and superficial" and he begged Sir John that the priests be kept away. Only a month after Helen's conciliatory letter, William had approached one of his fellow members of the Carlton Club who was one of the Commissioners for Lunacy and "arranged matters quietly with him" having Helen placed under restraint and sending someone to examine her. Meanwhile he continued to berate what he saw as his father's mild policy. (65)

Under her father's protection, Helen held fast to her religious commitment but continued as an invalid. She was now in her mid-thirties, yet her life was dominated by the men around her: father, brothers, doctors, priests. Two years after her enforced return from the Continent found her in Leamington Spa, companioned by elderly Aunt Joanna, and under the ministrations of several doctors. A Dr. Miller reported that he had called on Helen at 1 p.m. "and found that she had left home at 7 a.m. for the nunnery and had not returned. This is so flagrant an infraction of everything like medical subordination" that he would not continue attendance "without a distinct understanding on the part of Miss Gladstone that she will be at least somewhat obedient to my advice." He then spoke to her Catholic spiritual advisor about the injury already done to her health "by these early visits to the convent, and he promised to absolve her from them." Nevertheless, Dr. Miller suggest that "measures be taken, as soon as convenient to remove her to Fasque (her father's home in Scotland) away from temptation to such imprudence." (66)

Helen did, indeed, return to Fasque, and in attending to her father's decline into old age, seems to have acquired some purpose in her life congruent with her religious beliefs that eased her recovery from both her symptoms and use of opiates. After their father's death, the main contact between Helen and her brothers was over business affairs as they had control over her finances. She was convinced that because she had never married, she should have received the equivalent to their marriage portions, [pounds sterling]150,000 each, from their father's estate. In the struggles over this issue, the brothers were particularly annoyed at her delay in answering queries or signing documents, a typical delaying tactic for those with little power to influence affairs. The fundamental issue at stake was their recognition of her as an adult woman. Her dilemma was that in the ethos of her time and class, this could only be fully claimed if she had married and had children. With dignity she put her case centered on a plea for autonomy: "I do not seek to increase my own wealth from any wish to possess or enjoy it; I have wished simply to act on what I was told was justice. I should be perfectly willing to waive all rights that I have been informed are mine at once and forever if it were agreed to place me in something like the position which marriage would place me; that is to say, removal of the forfeiture provided by the will, thereby leaving me free to follow what my conscience might dictate, and with regard to the capital at my death, giving me that control over it, which children of mine would, unhesitatingly enjoy." (67)

Helen spent most of the rest of her life in a Continental convent. Based in that safe haven, relations were restored to the point where she came for visits to William's home and came to be familiar to his and Catherine's seven children. Yet William had refused to name one of his daughters after his wayward sister until Sir John had chided him that Helen's religion was her own affair. William only relented by saying he would use the name Helen after an elderly aunt who had just died, not his sister. (68)

Over the years, William continued to carp at Helen in his correspondence. Once again, in 1874, on a visit to the continent, in his "rescue mode" he tried to persuade Helen to give up her Roman Catholicism and return with him to his countryseat, Harwarden. He warned her of the "paralysing effects of inertia," although, in fact, she led an active life of good works within the convent community. During the visit he asked for her help in writing a pamphlet against her Church. Although she no longer feared him, this visit worried her until she felt ill while Gladstone, rather spitefully, wrote his wife that the day following the interview, Helen was fine and able to walk 29 miles in the mountains. Catherine, again bemused and possibly somewhat jealous, begged William to leave Helen alone and come home. (69)

As late as 1878, when Helen had failed to repay a loan of [pounds sterling]20 and to send a promised [pounds sterling]50 for a charity, William wrote: "A parcel arrived from you a few days ago. It contains I have no doubt a gift or gifts kindly intended by you for me, or for us." But he informs her, it would remain unopened. He has paid the charge on it "but I can have no other concern with it while matters remain as they are." (70)

Helen had clearly slipped away from the control of her male relatives, especially William, yet at a terrible personal cost. Although her life in the convent appears to have been peaceful and she was able to give up the dependency on opiates, she still remained emotionally involved with the family in England, harbouring reserves of resentment and envy mixed with longing for recognition.

These complicated feelings are illustrated in one tragic-comic episode in 1848. William, on a visit when Helen was back living with her father at Fasque, discovered some Protestant texts from the library with pages torn out in the water closet next to Helen's bedroom "under circumstances which admit of no doubt as to the shameful use to which they were put ... You have no right to perpetrate these indignities against any religion sincerely held." He threatened to tell their father unless she promised never again to tear up the works of Protestant theologians for use as toilet paper. (71)

In a final attempt to bring his sister back to the fold, after her death, William, insisted on bringing her body to England to be buried in the family vault, convincing himself through tortuous reasoning that she had reverted to the Anglican Church. His self-delusion is expressed in almost wistful terms: "Is not all this most extraordinary and a perfect and substantial proof that she lived and died in unity with us?... It is my conviction that in loyalty to her we are absolutely bound, when we take her remains to England, to exclude any interposition by a Roman Catholic." (72)

As in so many of these struggles between family members, issues over control and recognition lie at the root of Helen's relationships with her brothers, especially William. His angry, punitive attempts to control her display a side of his character that historical commentators have found highly troubling. Yet the brother and sister's intense interaction is characteristic of close sibling bonds generally, but here moulded by their particular historical world and expressed through the medium of a deeply personal religious, highly moralised idiom. In his early twenties, in a letter to Helen, William was disarmingly frank about the characteristics in himself that he later excoriated in her. "The one thing I dread is the fierceness of internal excitement, and that from experience as well as anticipation, I do dread. May God pour on it his tranquillising influence. It is very painful to feel myself mastered by turbulent emotions which one can condemn but not control." (73)

Catherine Gladstone recognised that for all his formidable controlled energy, sense of purpose and high-minded morality, William had a darker side. She perceptively described his duality: "impetuous, impatient, irrestrainable, the other all self-control--able to dismiss all but the great central aim. Able to put aside what is weakening or disturbing--self-mastery achieved with great struggle, partly through prayer." (74) Alas, for Helen, circumstances, especially her gender, deprived her of any "great central aim."

For William, as for many Victorian middle and upper class men obsessed with a sense of sin, it was good women's role in life to be the helpmeet to flawed masculinity in keeping such disturbing urges within the bounds of morality. A woman like Helen Gladstone, independent of spirit but driven to a frenzy by frustration and lack of opportunity for action, represented the other side of the equation, too close to the character of the "fallen women" who so fascinated as well as repelled upright citizens. For William, women were inherently Madonna or Whore. His mother and to an even greater extent his sister Anne, who had so early 'ascended to Heaven', were the prototype of this vision. These feelings were compounded by age and position in the family: Anne as older guide and protector, Helen as the younger, dependent but refusing proper subordination. The intense ambivalence of both siblings was also exacerbated by their continued grief over Anne's death and William's jealousy of Helen's relationship with their father.

Given the way historical records are handed down, we know an immense amount about William but very little of Anne or Helen. But even the detailed and numerous studies of his life and character have given scant attention to the sisters' influence. A case study such as this, set in historical context, can both give voice to the silences of the historical past and shed light on the more generally neglected place of siblings--a central element in active kinship.

Department of Sociology

Colchester, United Kingdom


1. Leonore Davidoff, Worlds, Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (Cambridge, 1995): 207.

2. David Schneider, A Critique of the Study of Kinship (Ann Arbor, 1984); Janet Carsten, "Introduction: cultures of relatedness" and Janet Carsten and Marilyn Strathern, "Including our own" in Janet Carsten, ed., Cultures of Relatedness: New Approaches to the Study of Kinship (Cambridge, 2000).

3. Elizabeth B. Silva and Carol Smart, eds, The New Family? (London, 1999).

4. David H.J. Morgan, Family Connections: An Introduction to Family Studies (Cambridge, 1996).

5. L. Davidoff, M. Doolittle, J. Fink and K. Holden, The Family Story: Blood, Contract and Intimacy 1830-1960 (London, 1998).

6. Marilyn Strathern, After Nature: English Kinship in the Late 20th Century (Cambridge, 1992); Andrew Brown, The Darwin Wars: The Scientific Battle for the Soul of Man (London, 2000).

7. Carsten in Cultures of Relatedness.

8. Penelope Farmer, Two or The Book of Twins and Doubles (London, 1996).

9. Ann Shearer, "Sisters and Brothers--Brothers and Sisters: Intimate Relations and the Question of 'Incest'," paper delivered at the European University Institute, September 2000, by permission of the author.

10. Graham Allan, Kinship and Friendship in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1996): 3.

11. Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Society (Cambridge, 1992); Lynn Jamieson, Intimacy: Personal Relationships in Modern Society (Cambridge, 1998).

12. Valerie Sanders, The Brother-Sister Culture in Nineteenth-Century Literature from Austen to Woolf (London, 2002).

13. Virginia Blain, "Thinking Back Through Our Aunts: Harriet Martineau and Tradition in Women's Writing," Women: A Cultural Review, Vol 1, No 1 (1990); Margeret Allen, "Thinking Back Through our Aunts: Emily and Matilda Sturge," Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, Vol 10 (2001).

14. See Robert Sanders, Sibling Relationships: Theory and Issues for Practice (London, 2004).

15. Juliet Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effects of Sibling Relations on the Human Condition (London, 2000).

16. Juliet Mitchell, Siblings: Sex and Violence (Cambridge, 2003), xi.

17. Prophecy Coles, The Importance of Sibling Relationships in Psychoanalysis (London, 2003): 1-2.

18. Ann Shearer, "Sisters and Brothers": 1.

19. Leonore Davidoff, "Where the Stranger Begins"; David Sabean, Kinship in Neckerhausen 1700-1800 (Cambridge, 1998); Naomi Tadmor, Family and Friends in 18th Century England: Household, Kinship and Patronage (Cambridge, 2001).

20. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class (London, 2002); this practice as followed by Sigmund Freud and his sister, Anna, see Leonore Davidoff, "The Legacy of the Nineteenth Century Bourgeois Family and the Wool Merchant's Son," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series, Vol. XIV (December 2004).

21. This is explored in detail in L. Davidoff, M. Doolittle, J. Fink and K. Holden, The Family Story: Blood, Contract and Intimacy 1830-1960 (London, 1998).

22. Francine Klagsbrun, Mixed Feelings: Love, Hate, Rivalry and Reconciliation Among Brothers and Sisters (New York, 1992).

23. Leonore Davidoff, "Eins sein zu zweit": Geschwisterinzest in der englishchen Mittelschicht des spaten 18. und fruhen 19. Jarhunderts," L'Homme: Zeitschrift fur Feminishtische Geschichtswissenschaft, Vol 13, No. 1 (2002).

24. quoted in Barbara Taylor, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (Cambridge, 2003): 6.

25. George Eliot, "Brother and Sister," Spanish Gypsy (Edinburgh, 1901): 579.

26. Mary Anne Hedge, "On the Reciprocal Duties of Brother and Sister," My Own Fireside (Colchester, 1832): 116-118.

27. Jane Taylor, "To a Brother on His Birthday" in I. Taylor (ed.) Memoirs, Correspondence and Poetical Remains (1831).

28. Richard Deacon, The Private Life of Mr. Gladstone (London, 1965): 29.

29. H.C.G. Matthew, Gladstone: 1809-1898 (Oxford, 1997).

30. Letter from Anne M. to William E., November 1, 1825, Flintshire Record Office, Gladstone Collection, No 605.

31. M.R.D. Foot, ed., The Gladstone Diaries, Vol I (Oxford, 1968): 53.

32. See for example, Judith Flanders, The Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin (London, 2001): 51.

33. Foot, The Gladstone Diaries, 228.

34. Letter from Anne M. to William E. March 30, 1824, Gladstone Coll. No 605.

35. S.G. Checkland, The Gladstones: A Family Biography 1764-1851 (Cambridge, 1971): 230.

36. Ibid, p. 165.

37. Letter from Helen Jane to William E., February 2, 1829, Gladstone Coll. No 629.

38. Letter William E. to Helen J. November 10, 1829 Gladstone Coll. No 751.

39. Letter Helen J. to William E. November 18, 1829 Gladstone Coll. No 629.

40. Matthew, 91-93.

41. See Leonore Davidoff, "Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Case of Hannah Cullwick and A.J. Munby" in Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (Cambridge, 1995).

42. Richard Shannon, Gladstone, Vol I 1809-1865 (London, 1982): 25.

43. Checkland, 290.

44. Clipping from Birmingham paper sent to William E. by a friend. Gladstone Coll. No 630.

45. Letter of William to his father quoted in Philip Magnus, Gladstone, A Biography (London, 1954): 59.

46. Matthew, 92-93.

47. Letter of William E. to Helen J. May 30, 1842, Gladstone Coll. No. 751.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. M.R.D. Foot and H.C.G. Matthew, eds, The Gladstone Diaries Vol. III (Oxford, 1974), 202.

52. Magnus, 82.

53. Ibid, p. 71.

54. Ibid, pp 74-75.

55. Papers of Sir Thomas Gladstone, 1844-46, Gladstone Coll. No. 1304.

56. Ibid, December 5, 1846.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid, January 8, 1846.

59. Ibid, January 7, 1846.

60. Ibid, January 9, 1846.

61. Ibid.

62. Ibid, January 11, 1846.

63. Ibid, January 13, 16, 18 and 19, 1846.

64. Letter of Helen to William, May 12, 1846, Gladstone Coll. No 630.

65. Magnus pp 81-82; for the practice of controlling women through incarceration in lunatic asylums, see Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980 (London, 1987).

66. Letter from Dr. Miller November 8, 1848, Gladstone Coll. No. 360.

67. Letter Helen Jane to William, July 24, 1853, Gladstone Coll. No. 629.

68. Magnus, 60.

69. Ibid, 234.

70. Matthew, 329.

71. Letter from William to Helen Jane, November 24, 1848, quoted in Magnus, p. 84.

72. Magnus, 268.

73. Deacon, 179.

74. John Morley, The Life of Gladstone (London, 1927): 44.

By Leonore Davidoff

University of Essex
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