The Family Story Blood, Contract and Intimacy 1830-1960. – Review

The Family Story Blood, Contract and Intimacy 1830-1960. – Review – book review

Anthony Fletcher

The Family Story Blood, Contract and Intimacy 1830-1960 Leonore Davidoff, Megan Doolittle, Janet Fink and Katherine Holden Longman 42.00 [pounds sterling] 297pp ISBN 0 582 303516

THIS, THE PREFACE EXPLAINS, is a genuinely collaborative project but it is not fanciful to see the guiding hand of Leonore Davidoff, the doyenne of family studies in this period, at work.

Her The Best Circles remains fundamental to study in this field. The first third of the book is taken up by a wide-ranging historiographical and conceptual discussion. While this very properly argues that there has been too much crude association of social and economic change with kinds of emotional lives, it could have been more radical in rejecting the old progressive model of love emerging with modernity.

Historians such as Ralph Houlbrooke and Keith Wrightson have said enough about affection before 1700. What is exciting here is the deeply pondered and path-breaking exploration of the family as a context for development of the self and of identity. The authors have important things to say about the feeling and sexual self, the sociological and psychological self, the postmodern and the feminist self. All along their premise is that childhood growth of the personality involved emerging identity and that every aspect of family experience was relevant to the sense of being. There is much here that others can develop.

The book moves on into two short narratives about the family 1830-1914 and 1914-60. These are useful summaries but less exciting. Four other chapters are each in their own way riveting. A study of fatherhood is based on case studies of a dispute about religious education in one family, the autobiography of a railway stationmaster in Devon and an account of his life by a police inspector at Eton College. These continue the proper investigation of fathers as historical subjects and gendered beings, pursued for the same period by John Tosh and others.

Domestic service is treated in terms of the dynamics of the service relationship and this chapter is especially illuminating on how children and servants related within the household. The sophistication of this analysis has all the Davidoff hallmarks. Four interviews with spinsters living between the wars and after form the basis of a chapter which approaches identity from a neglected and intriguing angle. Finally, a fascinating chapter deals with the hidden, unknown and secret aspects of family life, with those who could not be constrained by the fierce power of compulsory monogamous heterosexuality. Silences are here treated with insight and respect, and more is said that teaches us about the boundaries between self, family and society.

Taken overall, the book powerfully increases our knowledge of the central social institution of Victorian and early twentieth-century England. The overriding impression left is that the deeper we probe these two societies the more we appreciate how curious and alien the Victorian world seems. It is not simply that much it took for granted — the violence and humiliation of punishment, the hypocrisy behind its patriarchy — we now see as physical and sexual abuse. In every sphere of life the simple fact that this society was more polarised over gender than any before or since marks it out as strange and nearly impenetrable.

This fine book concludes reassuringly, though, with the claim that emotional investment in the family is not diminished, urging us to probe and study it in the round while querying the stereotypes that hold us in their sway. It deserves to be read by all who find fascination in families, their own and other people’s.

Anthony Fletcher is the author of Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 (Yale University Press, 1995).

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