Forming Friends, Family, and Lovers:
The Sexual Problematics of Sentimental Bonds
in Non-Canonical Late 18th-Century Woman-Penned Novels

copyright: Julie Shaffer, 1994

Early Modern Culture 1450-1850
Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Rochester, New York, November 1994


Family Values

A revised version of this paper and my paper for the
1997 Conference of the International Gothic Assocation,
is published as:

 "Familial Love, Incest, and Female Desire
in Late Eighteenth-Century Women's Novels"
Criticism 41 (1999): in press

In this paper I will be exploring the pervasive figure of the drive to see everyone like family that appears in 18th century novels. I will explore the different ways this figure, or motif, appears, along with cultural issues the different appearances address, focusing particularly on those that might have been felt as pressing to women. I will then identify points at which the uses of the motif become problematic and outline strategies taken to disarm the threat presented by what Tony Tanner has called the urge to "familialization," concentrating primarily on Elizabeth Helme's immensely popular 1787 Louisa, or the Cottage on the Moor and Sarah Sheriffe's 1802 Correlia, or The Mystic Tomb. These novels, the first a novel of sensibility and the second a gothic novel, present us with the positive and negative possibilities of the drive toward familialization - the dream and the nightmare of what happens when everyone else can be seen as "like" family.

One type of familialization I will be covering is, simply, characters' desire to see others, related to them or not, as family. Tanner claims this urge comprises "the acme of Enlightenment thought," based as it is in "an attempt to realize a dream of total harmony in which all the oppositional elements in human relationships ... have been eliminated" so that the entire world might provide a supportive web of relationships (148). Tanner locates this urge in Rousseau's 1761 La Nouvelle Heloise; in Richardson's 1753-4 Sir Charles Grandison (178); and in his Clarissa, in which the heroine rather mistakenly asserts that "'the world is but one great family."'

The insistence with which this general urge toward familialization occurs may be seen as addressing a great number of fears based in perceived changes in the social structure and in human relationships following the growth of capitalism, itself held to be responsible for an increased atomization of and competition in human relationships (Todd, Sensibility 16). It can also be seen as based on a realization that families themselves all too rarely act as the allies they theoretically are. It can be seen, then, as compensating fantasy for what family and other relationships did not offer.

The other sort of familialization I will address here occurs when one kind of family-feeling shifts to another - specifically, when sibling or parental/filial love shifts at least on one side to romantic/sexualized love. Here I distinguish between actual incestuous feelings and what I call "figural incest" to represent that shift in emotion occurring when the characters in question are not related but have nonetheless developed sibling or parental/filial love for one another before sexualization arises. Others for the most part have not distinguished between these types of incest, seeing them all as feeding the period's "blind craving for the passionate and extraordinary" (Tompkins 65). While the two kinds of incest become related at points, to understand the significance of these instances, it is useful to examine the two manifestations separately first.

As with literal incest, the relation of figural incest to familialization might seem contradictory because normally, loving someone as though he or she were already a part of one's family means excluding the possibility of loving that person sexually. Hence the taboo against incest, which ensures that sexuality extend the family or kinship chain. Yet in the late 18th century, familial feeling between two non-blood-related characters is shown capable of glossing into sexual feeling unproblematically. Throughout the period, female protagonists say they love their suitors as a sister loves her brother, and sometimes this means they will never love that suitor maritally, as in Charlotte Smith's 1788 Emmeline. Elsewhere, female characters who at first love their suitors as brothers or father-figures find their love shifting into maritally-directed feelings, and this movement is treated as positive; such is the case in Austen's novels - Emma and Mansfield Park, for instance, as Glenda Hudson has recently argued. Other such works include Burney's 1778 Evelina, in its treatment of Evelina's relationship with Lord Orville. And George Haggerty has asserted that Sarah Fielding's David Simple lauds such movement as well. This shift in affection I call figural incest, since characters see each other as already "like" family but are not in fact related. Because sibling affection shifts to maritally-oriented love with no deleterious effects in these novels, they present as positive maritally-directed love's being based in sibling affection.

The repetitiveness with which the figurally incestuous situation recurs suggests that more than one cultural need is served by it, but time forces me to limit my enquiry here to exploring only one of women's needs served by basing romantic/sexual love in sibling love. In this light, the motif works in part, as Haggerty and Hudson suggest, to propose that marital relationships should be as based in supportive feelings that have little to do with sexuality as they are in the sexual feelings that also belong to marriage. While such an argument can be historically anchored by noting the rise in at least a discursive valorization of compassionate marriage over the course of the century, Joseph Boone and Nancy Armstrong have explained that compassionate marriages still relied on inequality between the sexes. Boone has argued that most novels concluding with weddings end up reconfirming a view of the sexes as in opposition to one another, with the male in the position of power and strength. And he suggests that one way to break this tradition is to reformulate non-familial heterosexual relations so that they become based in idealized sibling love and support. As he explains,

unlike the hatred visible between many husbands and wives, brother and sister ideally participate in a non-combative mode of male-female relationship, one that is unthreatening because gender difference is rendered secondary to the bond of blood-likeness, familiarity, and friendship. (153-4)

Boone's observation that such a relationship stresses metaphoric kinship to defuse warfare built on difference is highly suggestive. All relations between the sexes, one could argue, stand to be improved by such a move. As Katherine Sobba Green points out, Charlotte Lennox's 1758 Henrietta makes this point clear. In one episode, the heroine's brother, not recognizing his sister, nearly "fatally" colludes in her seduction by his companion. They recognize each other in time, however, and we are then told that if men would only think of every woman as a sister, women would not so often be "ruined" by predatory male sexuality (Green 59). As this case makes clear, women in particular stand to gain by extending figural incest through all relationships between the sexes; they are the ones conventionally most disempowered. The use of sibling figural incest, that is, may well be seen as a reaction against the female sex's sufferings under current conceptions of the sexes' relations.

Because sibling figural incest transforms relationships between non-kin into relationships based in the kind of bond that kinship ideally provides, it is related to a more general drive to familialization, one that works similarly to the two other means of extending one's family that most frequently appear in the period's novels: younger women's viewing older women as (surrogate) mother figures and their viewing older men as (surrogate) father figures, the latter of which occasionally veers dangerously into the one sort of figural incest - parental/filial - that is almost never lauded.

In Helme's Louisa, the drive to "familialize" relationships strategically disarms threats to women especially; here, familialization in general guards in particular against improper figural incest, which stands in as patriarchal abuse of figures in positions of dependence - here, women. In this novel, friendships made on the basis of sentimental response to others challenge bonds defined by consanguinity, law, or will. This novel follows the story of Maria and Louisa, mother and daughter, who each suffer at the hands of the same man - the guardian of each. After being foiled in an attempt to kidnap and ruin the first, Maria, he leads her to believe her husband, his nephew, is dead, and that her daughter was stillborn; she shortly thereafter moves to reclusion in the cottage mentioned in the title. The second woman is the daughter, Louisa, who has lived after all. Ignorant of her parentage, she has been sent to school abroad. There she meets Lady Julia, who insists that they become "sisters" and that her mother, the Countess of Melville, become Louisa's "mother. " Louisa later notes that these two act more as family to her than does her guardian, whom she does not meet until she is a young woman; before that meeting, she is introduced to Lady Julia's brother, Lord Gray, and while she thinks of him as a brother, the two virtually immediately fall in love, so that their "sibling" relationship is eroticized nearly from the outset. When she is seventeen, she is called home to live with her guardian. On her way to his estate, she is saved from an attempted kidnapping by a man named "Belmont," with whom she immediately feels an emotive bond and who later turns out to be her father.

Once "home," she finds herself in an undesired figurally incestuous situation. She believes her guardian has sired her out of wedlock and tries to act as a good daughter to him, appropriate since, although he is not her father, he legally stands in for one. In fact he is her great uncle by blood, a relation distant enough to make his familial love for her figurally paternal, but his love for her shifts from figurally paternal to figurally incestuous, and when she does not respond, he tries to rape her. She flees and ends up at her mother's cottage, but although both women instantly develop a sympathetic bond that leads them to choose each other as surrogate mother and daughter, thereby multiplying such bonds, neither knows their true relationship, as both had been brought to believe the other was dead. The novel ends happily for both Louisa and Maria: they are reunited with "Belmont" and all discover their relationship and so re-form their nuclear family; her nuclear and figural family both declare they will protect her from her figurally incestuous guardian; and, after her father and figural brother/lover go to confront the guardian, Louisa marries Lord Gray, making Julia the sister(in-law) and the Countess the mother(-in-law) she has always felt them to be.

The structure of the novel stresses the importance of emotive bonds over simple blood ones or other sorts the patriarchal culture puts in place. The novel proceeds primarily through characters telling each other their stories. We learn Maria's through her recounting it to Louisa, and we learn about Louisa's life up through her near-rape through her recounting it to Maria. In fact, the whole of the first volume and the first two chapters of the second in this two-volume novel are made up of recounting; there is no forward movement in either woman's plot, as plot is usually understood. As such, while the novel is certainly about the women's betrayal by their family's patriarchal figurehead, the novel's action is comprised perhaps even more of the characters' bonding through recounting. Through this action, Maria and Louisa renew and confirm their biological relationship by forming an emotive one. The novel suggests through dwelling on story-telling and hearers' reactions that if the bonds patriarchy prescribes are easily betrayed, then it becomes necessary for the worthy to reinvent the family structure, to find it through emotional connection, rather than through the power or automatic connection provided by blood or legal family relationship.

If the emotive family's turning out to be the biological family here undermines the novel's radicality, the novel compensates by rejecting the uncle/guardian's claim to power over his relatives through his blood and legal relationship to them. Here the novel suggests that even when emotion replicates biology, it is the former, rather than the latter, which is most important: biology becomes not meaningless but in fact deleterious, a means to power and betrayal, when not enforced by proper emotionality, wherein morality is shown to reside. The novel therefore replaces the extended blood or legal family with one based on emotion. As such, it supports exogamy over the endogamy that extended kinship relationships represent when taken as the main form of community. The uncle's figurally incestuous desire for his two wards in fact represents an attempt to short-circuit exogamy over two generations in a way potentially destructive of his wards' lives. The novel ends up showing, then, that those least powerful - women - stand to gain by arguing that family and community must be based on choice.

Given Belmont's story, which I do not have time to summarize here, Louisa suggests that not only women but some men too have access to sensibility and its means of enabling people to choose bonds that matter. Sarah Sheriffe's Correlia, on the other hand, suggests women have a greater access to real sensibility, one that, as in Louisa, safeguards against the incestuous lust that male characters exhibit. While in Louisa, incestuous male lust is intentional and appears only in an exclusively villainous character, in Correlia, it manifests itself simply as a mistaken feeling of closeness in characters who are otherwise moral, caring, and supportive of the female family members after whom they lust. Here, what appears as sensibility in men leads them to bond, erotically, with women to whom they are related by blood; at the same time, it prevents those same women from developing the wrong kind of affection for men to whom they are so related - even if that relationship is hidden.

This novel is complicated. Here, the Baron Heildestheim marries the Lady Frederica and they have two children, one a daughter, also named Frederica, and the other a son, Leopold, who falls in love with the young Correlia, an "orphan" being raised with the other two. Correlia is believed to be a cottager's daughter and the goddaughter of Lady Frederica's late sister, also named Correlia. We discover in the last of this four-volume novel, however, that she is in fact this sister's daughter, the fruit of a secret marriage between the Baron and the late Correlia which preceded his marriage to Lady Frederica. He had not known that his wife had borne him a live child and does not know that his first wife is in fact still alive.

This all means that Leopold is in love with his half-sister (and cousin). Furthermore, while the Baron does not know his ward's real identity but is reminded by her of the only woman he ever truly loved, his ostensibly late wife, he also falls in love with the girl. The Baron tries to restrain these feelings, since he is, after all, married (not to mention old enough to be the young Correlia's father); Leopold, however, has no such restraints and woos Correlia aggressively. Out of gratitude for the family's treatment of her, browbeaten by Leopold's rhetoric, and pitying him for his strong feelings for her, she agrees to marry him, although her feelings never grow stronger than "the chaste affection of a sister" (1:306). Fortunately this marriage is prevented when Correlia the elder appears and enlightens everyone on their proper relationships to one another.

If some texts' play with the convention suggests that marriages and society as a whole will be better off by seeing everyone as potentially like family and all loving relationships as based in fraternal love, Sheriffe's novel argues otherwise, highlighting the dangers of an expansive familial feeling. In both its main story line and in inserted tales which I don't have time to cover here, Correlia makes clear that in this age, in which novels are filled with children of unknown parentage, figural incest may too often turn out to be actual incest, that characters who love each other as siblings, for instance, may be siblings in fact. This novel therefore problematizes the emotional shift inherent to figural incest, calling into question that figure's suggestion that familial love of = sort should be permitted to shift to romantic/sexual love. It is true that texts that advocate basing erotic love on fraternal love do not explicitly therefore also advocate overlaying fraternal or other opposite sex familial relationships with erotic feeling; Sheriffe shows, however, that the mistake is too easily made, and suggests it perhaps inheres in the rhetoric that sentimental novels of the period so often employ. The novel suggests, that is, that if one must love others fraternally or filially first, with that love providing the basis for a later erotic love, then it might be difficult to keep love between actual family members from crossing over into incestuous feelings.

While suggesting that figural and actual incest are dangerously related in kind, Correlia suggests as well that men are more likely than women to misread relationships. Once Leopold learns his true relationship to Correlia, he reflects, "I no sooner learnt [she] was my sister, than a supernatural influence seemed to change the sentiments that had so long filled my soul" (IV: 219). Nature does eventually work in him, then, to prevent him from incestuous feelings, but it does so only slowly, apparently overwhelmed earlier by his love - or lust. He recognizes "that nature had been more busy in [Correlia's] heart, [that she] ... had never ... returned his love with reciprocal warmth; but[,] ... having for him the sincerest affection of a sister, ... had yielded without any difficulty to make his happiness" (VI: 246) by agreeing to marry him regardless of her own reservations.

Noteworthy here is not only that Correlia shows a better ability to recognize their true relationship but also that she allows herself to be bullied into agreeing to marry Leopold, despite her non-maritally directed sort of affection for him. Most astonishing is that giving in to a man's desire is treated as somehow built into a sister's affection. Correlia's being made to agree to one of the two relationships in her world that would be most inappropriate, that is, seems wrought up with her familial relationship to Leopold. The implication is that a sister's very passiveness, her self-sacrificing love, might lead her to acquiesce to a tabooed relationship - that behaving as a sister ought - showing "a sister's affection" - entails behaving as a sister certainly ought not - marrying her brother.

If, in Louisa, everyone's turning out to be either family or like family worked, for the most part, to confirm an Enlightenment fantasy-come-true that at least a small community could work like an idealized family, Correlia presents the nightmare side of the issue, in which community collapses into family insistently. Sheriffe's novel plays on the fear on which other gothic novels too draw, that anyone whose history is at all uncertain is sure to turn out to be one's sibling, the last person one should marry. Such novels present a sense of a world so claustrophobic and confined, already so endogamous, that only further endogamy seems possible. As such, these novels questions any valorization of figural incest and, perhaps, the drive to familialize in general.

Correlia, however, offers a way out by suggesting that fortunately for everyone, women with true sensibility have intuitions that prevent love from following the wrong track. By highlighting both that male desire overwhelms any proper sense of limits and that constructions of proper sisterly affection might lead women to capitulate against their own better judgment, Correlia, like Louisa, reminds us of women's vulnerable position in their culture. While Louisa suggests that forming familial relationships with like-souled others might protect women from their enemies, Correlia directs our attention to what women themselves should be allowed. It suggests that if women were able to speak their desires and men were to bide by their beloveds' choices, only the most proper, desirable relationships might ensue. Were such the case, women might cease being simply that which gets exchanged for the purpose of an exogamy that everywhere in such novels seems endangered; as Correlia suggests, it is women's own desires that seem most likely to guarantee exogamy's continuance, leading both to the fulfillment of such women's own desires and to the culture's very survival. The alternatives are either to retain a familializing drive but to de-sexualize relationships between the sexes, as in Sophia Lee's The Recess, or to constrict familial feelings to what one knows to be the family itself. As we well know, these latter two alternatives largely won out; the view of female sexuality as tractable at best, naturalized over the course of the eighteenth century, became central to Victorian ideology, as did the apotheosis of the nuclear family as the proper, and only, site of family love. 

Primary Texts:
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. London: 1816.
  • Burney, Frances. Evelina. London: 1778.
  • Fielding, Sarah. David Simple. London: 1744 & 1753.
  • Helme, Elizabeth. Louisa, or, the Cottage on the Moor. London: 1787.
  • Lee, Sophia. The Recess. London: 1783-1785.
  • Lennox, Charlotte. Henrietta. London: 1758.
  • Sheriffe, Sarah. Correlia; or, the Mystic Tomb. London: 1802.
  • Smith, Charlotte. Emmeline; or, the Orphan of the Castle. London: 1788
 Secondary Texts:


  • Boone, Joseph Allen. Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
  • Green, Katherine Sobba. The Courtship Novel, 1740-1820: A Feminized Genre. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1991.
  • Hudson, Glenda A. Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen's Fiction. New York: St. Martins, 1992.
  • Tanner, Tony. Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.
  • Todd, Janet. Sensibility: An Introduction. London: Methuen, 1986.
  • ---. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1660-1800. London: Virago, 1989.
  • Tompkins, J.M.S. The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800. London: Constable, 1932.

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