Brotherly Love?

Brotherly Love?

In my last blog, I wrote about the general but oft ignored belief that cousins should not marry. Cousin marriage was fashionable in Jane Austen’s time among the wealthy, but it happened more than once in Jane’s immediate family. Her brother Henry (above, by headline) married their cousin Eliza, and the son of brother Frank married the daughter of brother Charles. Cousin marriage also occurs in “Mansfield Park,” when Fanny and Edmund are betrothed.

An even closer—and absolutely prohibited—degree of consanguinity is that of brother and sister. Sibling marriage being an incestuous taboo the world over, one would not expect such a thing ever to enter the environs of Austenia. Yet tradition brought it to Jane’s doorstep, for the law not only forbade marriage between blood siblings but also between brothers and sisters by marriage.

Therefore, the marriage of Jane’s brother Charles to Harriet Palmer after the death of his first wife was “voidable” because Harriet was Fanny’s sister. As explained in Martha Bailey’s article in “The Marriage Law of Jane Austen’s World” (Persuasions, Winter 2015), this sisterhood created a prohibition by “affinity” (marriage) as strong as one by blood. The logic was: Because Fanny and Harriet were related by blood, and because husband and wife became one flesh upon consummation, then Charles would also be related to Harriet by blood. This thinking applied equally for a woman who married the brother of her dead husband.

“Voidable” in Charles’ case did not necessarily mean “voided.” Someone—most likely a relative seeking to grab an inheritance—would have to sue to have the marriage voided and any children declared illegitimate. Charles never had enough money for anyone to bother trying to disinherit his four children by Harriet.

To resolve the ambiguity about people marrying the sibling of a deceased spouse, the 1835 Marriage Act validated all previous such marriages but voided any going forward. To evade this prohibition in still another Austen situation, Jane’s niece Louisa Knight went to Denmark in 1847 to marry Lord George Hill, who had been married to Louisa’s now deceased sister Cassandra. Such dodges continued until the affinity laws were removed in 1907.

This concept of “affinity” as a barrier to marriage brings us to the most difficult “brother and sister” pair in Austen, Mr. Knightley and Emma. Their “affinity” is not a technical one under the law but one created by proximity and time. In all but blood, Mr. Knightley functions as Emma’s older brother. He’s the good-natured scold who tries to keep a bright but undisciplined young woman on the straight and narrow and who also seeks to protect her in a fraternal way.

Modern courts have struggled with psychological affinities even when no biological issue exists. Adoptive parents have wanted to marry adoptive children, for instance. Did the love grow naturally as happens in any other relationship, or did the parent use a position of authority to groom the child inappropriately? Courts have looked at the amount of the disparity in age or the length of the relationship to try to determine the right course. Mr. Knightley is seventeen years older than Emma—and has known her since birth!

This is not to imply there is anything immoral in the Emma-Knightley relationship. Readers quickly recognize that they are the only two people worthy of the other and are intrigued at how they will surmount the barriers between them—primarily those Emma herself creates with her matchmaking exercises. This almost subliminal conflict is, however, one of many ways that Austen develops deep psychological issues in the courtship genre where other authors never reach beyond the superficial.

Their relationship begins to change as each (incorrectly) foresees the loss of the other—Emma to Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley to Jane Fairfax. Feelings break through at the Westons’ ball.

First, Emma notices his physique: “so young as he looked! … His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men.” Then there is his gallant rescue of Harriet after Elton’s snub. “Never had [Emma] been more surprized, seldom more delighted, than at that instant.” Finally, there is their brief but serious tête-à-tête. The well-known and memorable exchange that follows ends up redefining their roles. Note that it is Emma who nudges the two forward.

“Whom are you going to dance with?” asked Mr. Knightley. She hesitated a moment, and then replied, “With you, if you will ask me.”

“Will you?” said he, offering his hand.

“Indeed I will. You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”

“Brother and sister! no, indeed.”

The sense of this scene turns on how the key phrases are handled. In the 1972 BBC series starring Doran Godwin and John Carson, the brother-sister comments are treated as so much banter. In the 1998 movie, Gwyneth Paltrow also tosses her line out merrily. What follows, however, makes all the difference. Jeremy Northam first responds with a laughing “Brother and sister! … ” Then, as she moves out of earshot, he adds meaningfully, “No, indeed.” He understands the tectonic shift that has occurred.

When the book opens, Emma, in addition to being handsome, clever, and rich, has lived “nearly” twenty-one years. In the months that pass covering the events of the novel, she comes of age. This is not likely to be a casual choice for Austen. Twenty-one is the age of consent. This is Austen’s signal that the heroine is no longer in the junior position but is fully capable of owning this momentous swing from younger sister to adult wife.

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14 Responses to Brotherly Love?

  1. I enjoyed reading this post and thought the various laws you mentioned were interesting as well as how they applied to Jane Austen’s family as well as how they related to some of her stories.

  2. Interesting details about the law here. It’s hard enough to wrap our modern minds around the first-cousin marriages of that era, especially in light of our understanding of genetics and the hazards of inter-family marriage. The “affinity” relationships are something I’ve pondered on (but never had a name for.) I knew a couple whose divorced parents met at their wedding and then turned around an married each other, making their children essentially married to their step-sibling after the fact. I always found it interesting that Austen made the marriage of Fanny and Edmund seem so right, but made the matrimonial possibilities of Anne de Bourgh and Darcy seem so distasteful. Mr. Knightley and Emma’s situation where the two sisters married brothers never bothered me a bit because there was no blood connection between them. I appreciated your explanation all the more for clarifying why some may have considered it controversial.

  3. So then, Caroline’s wish of Charles & Georgiana, and then Caroline & Fitzwilliam, or vice versa, wouldn’t have been allowed, because they would have then been siblings by marriage?

  4. What an interesting law. I have seen this many times in my genealogy research where a spouse dies and the widow ends up marrying the deceased’s sibling. Wonder if there were similar laws to this in the US.

    • It is curious that this situation would be illegal, as it happened with some regularity in Britain. I don’t know if it was ever illegal in the U.S. It was “not uncommon” here. In my wife’s family, in the U.S., a grandparent married the sister of his deceased wife. I recall hearing or reading of such things from time to time. It makes sense. The sister would likely be familiar with the husband and any children–would have known, one suspects, what she was getting into! And, if the sister was single in, say, the 1800s, she would face the same dim prospects for prosperity as in England and likely appreciated having economic security. One hopes there was genuine affection, as well.

  5. I enjoyed your post. My knowledge of the legal problem of such marriages comes from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” when the Fairy Queen is threatening what her surrogate will do to the House of Lords:

    “He shall prick that annual blister, marriage with deceased wife’s sister”.

    That doesn’t seem a severe threat. More threatening is her last words on the subject: “And a Duke’s exalted station/ Be attainable by Competitive Examination!”

  6. I find the affinity aspect of the law concerning whom one could marry interesting. Under the Mosaic Law, brother-in-law marriage or levirate marriage was allowed in the case that a woman’s husband died with no son to carry on the family name. The brother-in-law was obligated to marry his sister-in-law so his brother’s name did not die out. The first son born would carry his brother’s name forward. Yet, under English law for a time, a name could die out.

    Appreciate the post, Collins. Jane Austen was very clever in her writings and how she handled the accepted customs of her day. I’ll be paying closer attention to what she writes.

    • Gianna, I was generally aware of the Old Testament provision that brother-marrying-sister-in-law-after-brother’s death was allowed if not required. I didn’t remember that it was specific to whether there was a surviving son, interesting limitation. But it makes sense that there would be a general obligation of a surviving brother to help or assist w/his brother’s family, especially in a period when clans and tribes prevailed. That’s why I was surprised, too, that the Catholic Church had laid in all these rules to limit marriage somewhere along the way. Probably a good thing that Henry VIII broke open the old rules, though his reasons were personal and selfish.

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