Perry, Ruth. Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818.
Novel Relations is one of those rare academic books that can be read straight through, almost with as much intense absorption and sincere fascination as many of the novels that form the centerpiece of the study. Especially refreshing is the at-once aesthetic and anthropological consideration given to women, to gender, and to familial relationships more broadly. The purportedly insular domestic realm--sometimes eclipsed in socio-political approaches that take for granted the separation of public and private spheres--is here given the interdisciplinary attention that it deserves. In thus combining literary criticism and narrative theory together with exhaustive sociological research, Ruth Perry offers a comprehensive and convincing explanation of the transformation of kinship during the eighteenth century.
The ostensible thesis of the book, somewhat too modest to do justice to what follows, is that the "significant shift in... kinship disclosed by the fiction of the period" corresponds to a shift in "what constituted the primary kin group," a transition from "consanguineal ties or blood lineage" to the "conjugal and affinal ties of the married couple" (2). The opening chapter, "The Great Disinheritance," is given the conceptual spotlight throughout, but its main argument is only crystallized midway through, in the companion chapters "Privatized Marriage" and "Sexualized Marriage." Given the perception of the period as moving from aristocratic sexual license to bourgeois marital probity, these chapters might seem to be temporally and thematically inverted in order. In part, though, that reversal is explained by Perry's insistence that the commodification of raw materials and women's bodies is directly, if dialectically, interconnected:
The newly privatized marriage-privatized in the sense of private ownership as well as seclusion in domestic space--... put women in the power of their husbands as if marriage had the alchemical effect of transforming them into property at the same time as it [transferred their own] property to their new masters.... [S]entimentalizing marriage amounted to a kind of proof that this way of creating kin relationships was becoming too important to leave to common custom.... Infusions of this ... attitude make one suspect that whatever is being sentimentalized is in actuality governed by rational, calculating motivation ... beyond the reach of feeling. (196-97, 209)
The most compelling arguments in the book are likewise chiasmic rather than mimetic in structure. Concerning the so-called "invention of childhood," for example, Perry claims, "women and children ... traded social positions" in a "kind of cultural chiasmus": "Where children had always been thought of as their parents' property," women "retained their own separate personhood [until] the movement from father patriarchy to husband patriarchy ... rearranged th[ese] positions," subordinating women to children and future heirs (227). Such claims are also more substantive (and more materialist) than the thesis itself, if only in offering an explanation for the paradigm shift along with an exposition of it.
All of the chapters have distinct, and remarkably distinctive, topics; for example, "Fathers and Daughters," "Brotherly Love," or my favorite, the nicely assonant, understated, and Austen-inflected, "Importance of Aunts." Given the astute remarks that Perry makes about the absence of mothers in the novel, and the reification of maternity more generally, it seems strange that none of these chapters concentrate on mothers or maternity primarily. The only chapter that appears out of place, however, especially considering the otherwise dependable organizational frame, is that on Arthur Young, "Farming Fiction." Nonetheless, this chapter is also where the methodological stakes become most manifest. In specifying the extent to which literary and sociological narratives constitute historical evidence, it may be the most rewarding, if not necessarily the most germane, chapter of them all.
Evinced throughout the book is descriptive nuance, as well as profound conceptual grace; indeed, the book's primary strength lies in its well-chosen, multi-layered collage of quotation and illustration. Examples are culled from such a wide array of novels that even the most well-read specialist is certain to encounter new references to--and insightful remarks on--unfamiliar yet important narratives hitherto neglected in the scholarship, especially ones that happen to concern the family in any respect (as so many in this period ultimately do). Moreover, the footnotes provide helpful, pragmatic advice on locating the more obscure novels in reprint editions or online databases. The chronological scope as specified in the subtitle (1748-1818) could be adjusted to reflect the true focus of the book. Much of the analysis concerns late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century novels (to substantiate the proposed transformation in kinship), while relatively little attention is given to nineteenth-century novels that take the newer paradigm for granted. As to the secondary criticism, it is no less extensive, eclectic, and well-chosen as the primary texts. Indeed, like many Cambridge publications, the bibliography, with its select yet representative constellation of scholarship, tells a story in itself. Secondary critics tend to be addressed in the footnotes rather than analyzed in the main body of the text, which vastly increases the readability of the book, especially for beginning students and scholars, although occasionally at the expense of theoretical sophistication.
Ultimately, the book is just as adeptly organized as is any family tree, and perhaps just as misleadingly so as well. Genealogy (as Foucault has made clear) is as prone to inscribe and proscribe an illusive order on a chaotic material reality as it is to depict or validate that reality. Because so much of the scholarship covering (and complicating) the same subjects is not acknowledged sufficiently in the body of the text, this book at times seems to take for granted normative assumptions about genealogy-bourgeois, feminist, heterosexist, imperialist, or otherwise--already put into question elsewhere, perhaps for the sake of coherence and clarity alone. Perry's oft-cited article "Colonizing the Breast" (reprinted in British Literature 1640-1789: A Critical Reader) can seem particularly anomalous, if not veritably dystopian, in relation to the first half of this book, in which duty, affection, tradition, and even nature itself (rather old-fashioned, yet quintessentially, eighteenth-century concepts) are used to explain familial dynamics (dysfunctional or otherwise), sometimes almost as much as legal, ideological, or material constraints. For instance, The Old English Baron, despite its male protagonist, paternalistic "champions of virtue," and marginalization of female characters, serves as the inaugural emblem of the "great disinheritance" of daughters simply because composed by a woman author. No doubt, Nancy Armstrong, Michael McKeon, Claudia Johnson, and Edward Said (in Desire and Domestic Fiction, Origins of the English Novel, Equivocal Beings, and Culture and Imperialism respectively) would have very different explanations of this family romance, which feigns a "feminine" disinheritance (or rather a mystified and sentimentalized one) only to reclaim it as inalienable imperial right. In the end, however, most of these complications, and many more besides, are taken into account in the second half of the book and with considerable aplomb.
Moreover, the very conceptual minimalism of the book is also what gives it such remarkable explanatory clarity. In short, Perry does a superb job of underscoring a phenomenon that might otherwise go unnoticed if all of these cultural discourses were attended to within a single work simultaneously. Perry seeks to analyze one topic, one strand of cultural discourse, rather than several contrapuntal discourses in tandem, and she is ultimately quite successful in doing so. Indeed, the only major problem that I can see with this otherwise well-conceived, well-organized, and well-substantiated book is the unusual expense of purchasing it ($80.00). However warranted by its size and scope, that price is beyond the reach of the students and scholars to whom it would prove most useful.
ABBY COYKENDALL, Eastern Michigan University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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