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Thicker than Water: Siblings and their Relations

By Jane Hamlet | Posted 16th May 2012, 13:49
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Thicker than Water: Siblings and their Relations 1780-1920
Leonore Davidoff
Oxford University Press  464pp  £35

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Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins have hitherto played a minor part in history. Now a new book by Leonore Davidoff, whose Family Fortunes (written with Catherine Hall) was such a founding text of women’s history when it was published in 1987, places them centre stage.

In Thicker than Water Davidoff presents a fascinating new picture of Victorian family life by exploring it from the point of view of sibling relationships and what it meant to be part of a ‘long family.’ A typical long family contained seven or more children, connected between generations and to a wide network of aunts, uncles and cousins. If all the siblings from a long family produced long families themselves, there could potentially be hundreds of cousins.

In Britain one third of all women born in the early 1850s had at least seven live births and 10 to 15 per cent had 10 or more children. A quarter of all children lived in families of this size.

The long family was normal among the British middle classes until the birth rate dropped in the late 19th century and remained a feature of working-class life well into the 20th.

This largely forgotten aspect of the Victorian family powerfully influenced its emotional life, since the sheer number of family members created an intricate web of relationships quite different from our own conception of the nuclear family. The forest of relations in which many Victorian children grew up profoundly affected their lives. Networks of business and enterprise, as well as support at home, were closely bound up with kin groups.

Family ties were often further strengthened by ‘close marriage’ – the marriage of cousins (then seen as completely acceptable) or double marriages of siblings from two different families.

For the lower middle and the working classes the long family meant that houses were very crowded with children – particularly the younger ones – sharing bedrooms and most probably beds.

Housekeeping for such a brood, clothing and caring for them, in sickness and in health, was a gargantuan task and perhaps it is no wonder that parents admitted to having favourite children more readily than they would today.

Older daughters might become surrogate mothers, especially as there could be wide age gaps between siblings. Special relationships often developed – between the two youngest or the two oldest, or an older sister assigned to take special care of a younger child.

But brother-sister relationships were not always so cosy. In a patriarchal society brothers could control the lives of adult sisters. The most disturbing account in the book tells of the Victorian prime minister, William Gladstone, and his two sisters, Anne and Helen. Virtuous Anne died young, leaving a brother who spent the rest of his life revering her. This was bad news for the more wayward Helen. As her brother built a flourishing political career she was kept at home to look after their father. When she tried to convert to Catholicism she was opposed by her vigorously Anglican brother, who even tried to get their father to disinherit her.

Davidoff also sheds new light on the Freud family. Sigmund Freud relied heavily on two women: his wife and her sister, who lived with them. Biographers have alternately bickered and salivated over the sexual relationship between Freud and the unmarried Minna, who are reputed to have travelled as husband and wife. But Davidoff points out that this domestic set up was fairly common among long families, where not only were there a plethora of babies to be looked after, but also often a hard-up aunt to spare.

Historians and general readers alike will relish this book, which contains a wealth of anecdotes from the most famous families of the age as well as from unknown voices. Anyone who finds a long family on their own tree will be particularly gripped, as this book reveals much of the texture and tempo of a form of family life that has long since been forgotten.

Jane Hamlett is Lecturer in Modern British History at Royal Holloway, University of London.


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