Marrying a Cousin

Marrying a Cousin

There’s a whole lot of marrying going on in Jane Austen’s novels. Among the major characters of her six major novels, at least nineteen couples tie the knot.

One wedding was so singular that it could have been halted in certain quarters, then and now. The marriage in Mansfield Park between Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, who are first cousins, would have been illegal for much of England’s history and would still have been illegal under Catholic canon. Even today, marriage of first cousins is illegal in half the jurisdictions of the United States, though it is legal in other Western nations—and quite common in other parts of the world.

As one might suspect, English law on cousin marriage diverged from Catholic doctrine as the result of Henry VIII. His tendency to tire of a wife—and his need to sire a male heir—put him regularly in need of a new marriage. This regularly put him afoul of church doctrine.

Just as he manipulated canon law to have his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he might marry Anne Boleyn, he later had the marriage laws altered so that he could marry Catherine Howard. Under the old law, his marriage to Howard would have been incestuous because she was Anne’s first cousin. The law applied whether a person was cousin by blood or marriage. Where before no one closer than fourth cousins could marry, the Marriage Act of 1540 made marriage legal for first through third cousins.

A ban on incestuous marriages probably preceded civilization, as people recognized that inbreeding caused deformities and other birth defects. In ancient times, no one knew what degree of separation would prevent problems, so tradition (often via religion) became very cautious.

Modern genetics largely contradict the fear of defects among the children of first cousins. Unless both carry a specific genetic problem, the risk for cousin couples is only 1.7 to 2.8 percent higher than with other couples. Conversely, cousin couples suffer fewer miscarriages. It has been posited but not proven that similar blood chemistry may account for the lower miscarriage rate.

Prince Regent, later George IV

By the 1800s, cousin marriage was not unusual. The most famous of Austen’s time was that between the Prince Regent and Caroline. Similar blood chemistry didn’t help much in that horrific mismatch!—a mismatch that Austen comments on in her letters when she sides with the princess.

Closer to home, Jane’s brother Henry married Eliza, their first cousin, whose exotic charm created sibling competition between Henry and James as to which cousin would win her heart. A first-cousin marriage occurred in the family’s next generation, too, when Francis, the oldest son of Jane’s brother Frank, married Fanny, the daughter of Frank and Jane’s brother Charles.

By that generation, it was estimated that about one in fifty marriages for ordinary people involved cousins vis-à-vis about one in twenty for the aristocracy and other swells; the higher number among the wealthy likely related to the desire to keep family property together. The estimate came from George Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood of the pottery dynasty—first cousins! Whenever his children became ill, Charles worried that they were weak from inbreeding.

Cousin marriage appears twice in Austen’s novels. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine proves the economic rationale for cousin marriage—that of building family fortunes—in her determination to join her daughter Anne to her nephew. Darcy has the good sense to reject his listless relative for the spirited if poor Liz Bennet.

Eliza de Feuillide had not one but two cousins who sought to marry her: James Austen and Henry Austen, two of Jane’s brothers. She chose the more ebullient Henry.

And of course Fanny and Edmund marry at the end of Mansfield Park. Whatever the church tradition, which still discouraged cousin marriage, no eyebrows shot up. Interestingly, the subject is raised before Fanny is ever invited into the family, when Mrs. Norris declares that Sir Thomas need not worry about a match between one of his sons and their cousin: “do not you know that, of all things upon earth, that is the least likely to happen, brought up as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters? It is morally impossible. I never knew an instance of it.”

By the novel’s conclusion, many years later, Sir Thomas gives not a thought to the match being between cousins, recognizing only Fanny’s many virtues.

Austen makes a point of mentioning “married cousins” on the last page, but only in the context of their joy in a relationship “as secure as earthly happiness can be.” It’s as if the familiarity that came from cousinage—their growing up together in the same house—bode well for a companionable life. At the very least, in this family of affairs, divorce, elopements, and general scandal, Fanny’s moral worth transcends any consanguineous concerns.

Next time: A look at another form of consanguinity.

18 Responses to Marrying a Cousin

  1. Interesting and I, also, did not know about the lower miscarriage rate. I usually don’t particularly like JAFF stories in which cousins marry, i.e., Georgiana and the Colonel or even Anne and the Colonel. I read them but wish it were not so. I guess am a bit prejudiced b/c of the culture in which I was reared.

  2. Very interesting post. I know here in Ireland up to a couple of decades ago it was frowned on for cousins to marry cousins. A lot of families still wouldn’t be happy about it.

    • This was also the first I had ever read about “similar blood chemistry” supposedly reducing the chance of miscarriages for cousins. There was only one reference I found, and whether the study was truly conclusive is hard to say. I would NOT marry a cousin just for that!

    • Lorraine, the laws against cousin marriage were slowly loosened across most Western nations. It began as illegal in the U.S. and over 200 years the prohibition has been dropped state by state until it’s illegal in only half now. (And I doubt it is enforced in the others.) I don’t know of anyplace where the ban has been reinstated.

  3. The opening lines of Mansfield Park address the inequality between Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. “About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.” Like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Sir Thomas marries a woman who was a beauty in her youth. Unfortunately, Lady Bertram becomes neurotic, a hypochondriac, and lazy. She values people’s attractiveness over all else. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet is a foolish, noisy woman whose only goal in life is to see her daughters married. Because of her low breeding and often unbecoming behavior, Mrs. Bennet often repels the very suitors whom she tries to attract for her daughters.

    Such revelations leads one to wonder whether “being entranced” by the opposite sex leads to disappointment in marriage. Please note how Austen’s heroines must turn from the “charms” of unworthy gentlemen [Wickham, Willoughby, William Elliot, etc.] to discover contentment in marriage. Is Austen giving us her opinions of cads and scoundrels? Let us face the truth, the gentlemen these heroines claim are often something of a prig, a man of unbending principles. Is this Austen’s idea of honor? Do you suppose our dearest Jane ever knew such a man? Did she know the disappointment of unrequited love?

    • Regina, we know of a few would-be romances involving Austen. Through the mists of time–and misdirection by her family–it’s hard to know which were real and which might have been very serious. I believe it was Virginia Woolf who said that “Persuasion” proved that Austen had truly loved and no longer cared who knew. My trilogy, “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” posits that there was such a love; there’s no proof except an expanse of eight years when her otherwise well-documented life goes blank, and her family–especially her sister Cass–tap-dances around what happened then.

      Like you, I have always wondered about two of the “heroes”–Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram. To me, neither has a spine or imagination. I agree with Cass, who thought Fanny should have married Henry Crawford, who turned a corner when he helped Fanny’s brother get his promotion. I’ve wondered about Austen’s selection here, or whether she is just trying to achieve balance: Ferrars against Willoughby, Bertram against Crawford. Or the priggish Eds against the more dashing Darcy and Wentworth.

  4. That’s interesting about lower the miscarriage rate, I’ve never expected that. But for the sake of genetic diversity, it would be bad for the line in the long run (look at the pharaohs and their marrying sisters / mothers )

    • Kate, I agree too much “inbreeding” would be a bad thing. There are websites promoting cousin marriage, but I don’t know if any that promote repeated cousin marriage, because that would increase the odds for problems. Especially if there were a genetic predisposition to an illness or condition.

  5. Fun analysis! My second cousins are married, and their son is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation of Mrs. Norris’ comments at the beginning of MP, however. I always read the concern as being centered around Fanny’s poverty and lower social status, not the fact that she is a cousin. Austen really seems to not think twice about such marriages. No matter how taboo historically, as you point out, in her time they were very common.

    • Alexa, Mrs. Norris is doing a little Miss-Bates-style rambling at this point, but to my reading she’s telling Sir Thomas that he’ll help Fanny by lifting her up in the world but not enough for him to worry about her marrying one of his sons. I agree that may not be her main point, but it seems to strike her in passing. An interesting bit of foreshadowing, if true.

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