Cousinly love

Image from Mansfield Park film
Everyone’s favorite “kissing cousins”

While we’re on the subject of Mauprat–what is it about romance between relatives? Because it makes us uncomfortable these days, we have a tendency to shrug our shoulders, look the other way and say, “well, that was the olden days, they didn’t know any better.” Although clearly, of course, they did; 19th century novelists and the characters who populate their work were the wealthiest people in agricultural economies; they understood breeding just fine.

Historians can tell us that marriages between cousins were a fiscal strategy of the upper class, a way to soften the blow of female disenfranchisement, lessen the impact of primogeniture and keep wealth concentrated within the family. This political and financial necessity was deliberately romanticized in the culture, some argue. It was desirable from a prudential standpoint, and so it became desirable form a psychosocial one as well.

But, as all diligent english majors know, cousin love in 19th century novels isn’t about practicality or money or social acceptability or even, really, about love. Its a way of expressing the fundamental sameness between two individuals. Romances of this period are obsessed by the idea of transcendental love, of fated spiritual connection, a union of souls–of two people who are, in some mysterious way actually one personThis concept is not infrequently expressed as familial relationship. Blood of my blood. All that. Its also a sneaky blow for gender equality. In depicting male and female characters as two halves of one whole, brothers and sisters (don’t worry, its a figure of speech), matched souls, these authors are tacitly placing them on equal footing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.