George Justice, Editor

Sibling Love

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 siblings.

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).

JASNA News v.20, no. 3, Winter 2004, p. 20

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