4/3 Ruth Perry, Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748-1818 (Cambridge 2004).
Critical reception paper – Brian
This is the last of our novel “theory” books, and with it we move into the decade of 2000. How has the scholarly landscape for the eighteenth-century novel changed by this time? What issues are new with Perry, and what questions persist? As you read, think of the ways in which her ideas about the history of the meaning of family correspond to or differ from the representations we have read in our novels.
I. Methodological Questions
asserts that this is a directly interdisciplinary study, bringing history,
literature and anthropology together so as to see each discipline in light of
another. Her focus is on family
relations in eighteenth-century
Her thesis is “that loyalty to the new conjugal family undermined the claims of the consanguineal family” (2), and she examines the psychological effects of this change and its impact on women’s place in the family. What role does the novel play?
She offhandedly refers to the period of fiction from 1748-1818 as “the terra incognita between Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen” (3). What does this mean and what are the implications for her study?
On page five, Perry explains that narrative is a “universal human response to dilemmas about the metaphysics of existence.” Her use of novels in the book is, nonetheless, instrumental. Evaluate her views on the genre here and compare it to the theoretical studies we have already examined (Watt, Mckeon, Warner and Hunter). How would you summarize the relationship between novels and society?
Perry challenges Hunter’s thesis that ‘new’ needs were addressed by the novel in 1719-1750 and claims that new psychological needs were met by the emerging novel of her period. What are those needs (as they get developed over the course of the book)? How does this compare with Hunter’s assessment of generic development in the first half of the century?
She claims to try to read the “unconscious” of the text (8) – the anxieties of the culture. What does this mean for critical work/writing?
Perry claims: “It seems likely that novel production affected the cultural context of matrimony just as the numbers of people marrying gave substance to the ideology of romantic love promulgated by fiction” (11). Both peaked in 1771. Evaluate.
Perry: “I hope that the framework I develop here for seeing the problematics of fiction in terms of kinship conflicts will provide a fruitful way to read for other scholars of this literature” (12). Do you think she is successful in this?
Summarize the major historical and anthropological information you learned in this opening. How helpful is this for understanding the eighteenth-century novel? Compare this information to that provided by Watt. What conclusions might you draw?
II. The Content – changes to the family represented in fiction
She has organized the chapters around a major symptom of the kinship shift from consanguineal family to conjugal family. Evaluate each chapter based on 1) the argument it makes about the implications of the kinship shift (usually its impact on women) and 2) the role that novels play in elucidating, validating, making nostalgic these changes.
In the “Great Disinheritance” she analyzes the ways in which daughters were disinherited over the course of the century. Her point: “the narratives that I discuss on these pages helped to consolidate the shift I am describing by lamenting it. By showing what was lost, or imagining the loss retrieved , these narratives confirmed the new conjugal paradigm of kinship” (51). How does this reading sit with the novels we have read for class?
In her chapter on Fathers and Daughters, Perry explores several different popular representations of the relationship. Evaluate her method of providing evidence for cultural change in her quick and various summaries of novels?
How has the danger of incest been represented in the novels we have read? What role have fathers played in the novels?
To what extent do we have evidence of the rivalry between mothers and daughters? Between sisters and wives? How does she account for these?
She cites Naomi Tadmor: “novelists always identify the birth position and rank of siblings, their expectations for inheritance as well as their gender, to mark their power gradations within the family before describing their interactions” (114). To what extent has this been a puzzling convention in the fiction we have read and to what extent does Perry’s analysis explain it?
Why is the brother-sister tie so vexed in eighteenth-century fiction? What are some brother-sister relations we have seen explored in the fiction, and how helpful is Perry’s analysis (think Pamela)?
Her Chapter 4: Brotherly Love in life and Literature suggests a gap between the representation of brotherly love and its historical experience. How does she account for this? How compelling is this argument? Why has the role of brothers changed and what are the novelists saying about it?
In this chapter Perry addresses the Fieldings (Henry and Sarah) and Henry’s representation of female education (p. 175). How helpful is Perry’s reading of Mr. Wilson?
Chapters 5 and 6 on shifts in marriage decisions and sexual relations work significantly to revise lasting impressions of outdated views by historians such as Lawrence Stone. For many contemporary readers, this economic and anthropological analysis of the rise of romantic love may be a bit depressing. What are the sources of romantic love? How does the eighteenth-century novel use romantic love to serve new social imperatives? What evidence do we have for this in the novels we have read? Do you see a difference in the representations of marriage and sexuality in the novels of amorous intrigue (first half of the century) and Pamela or Joseph Andrews? If so, does the difference help to solidify Perry’s case?
On page 209 Perry offers an assessment of sentimentality as a literary device in play when the culture no longer takes the target seriously as an object of sentiment. Evaluate the argument in light of sentimental characters we have read.
In chapter six, Perry examines how the idea of sexualized love emerged in discourse as the rationale and controlling ideology of sexual behavior in place of the role that kin groups had played in marriage choice. In support of this she demonstrates how the heroine demonstrates a new revulsion toward sex outside of love and the continuum between wives and prostitutes. What evidence do we see for these developments in the novels we have read?
For example, how does Fielding represent the “fallen woman” in Joseph Andrews, and how is this reflective of class attitudes? Are these attitudes toward sex before marriage different in Pamela?
“Increasingly, women’s sexual behavior became a social marker for class identity; virtue was moral capital and chastity was the signature of class” (284). Compare Fantomina to Pamela or Joseph Andrews on this issue.
In Chapter Seven, Perry analyzes the life and work of Arthur Young and the effects of enclosure on poor families. The chapter opens, however, with an anxious defense of her use of novels in this book and the relation between history and novels. What does Perry’s methodological defense at this point in the work suggest? In what ways in this a deliberate and appropriate introduction to Arthur Young?
Why is Arthur Young important to this study? Does he deserve an entire chapter? In this way, is he like John Dunton in Hunter’s work?
How is the entrepreneurial farmer represented in Joseph Andrews? To what extent does it validate Perry’s assertions about new attitudes toward gentlemanly labor and the protential productivity of the land (293-4)? See also her discussion on p. 301. What does the trope signify in this novel?
Speculate as to why the four novels of this literary man are omitted from his biography. What might this say about novels and novel writing at mid century?
Perry offers us a different reading of the dead dog scene in Joseph Andrews. How compelling is the argument that the squire’s role here is to demonstrate the legal interpretation of absolute and exclusive property rights (303)? To what extent do animals represent an “unmediated relation to natural world” and so show “how absurd” the absolute property rights were?
The novels of the mid century, Perry claims, illustrate “that people have a right to take their living from the land and that whatever interferes with subsistence practices such as fishing or hunting is irrational and unjust” (310) and she sees in this parallels to our own controversies over patenting genes and plants. To what extent can you find the controversies in eighteenth-century fiction (over property) relevant to our society?
In chapter 8 Perry examines the absence of mothers in fiction and the erasure of mother’s legal rights to her children in the eighteenth century, both manifestations of a mother’s powerlessness. At the same time, the ideology of natural femininity embraces motherhood as the epitome of sentimental selflessness. How might you explain these developments in the fiction we have read? Do you see a change in the role of mothers from the earliest fiction to the mid century?
She also examines the role of “aunt” figures in fiction. What “aunt” figures have we seen and how have they affected the narratives? Consider even the smaller plot lines within a novel.
In the final chapter Perry analyzes the ways in which families are formed in fiction. What is the most satisfying conclusion to the family plot in eighteenth-century fiction and why?