Born and Made: Sisters, Brothers, and the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill

Elisabeth Rose Gruner
1999 Signs  
Born and Made: Sisters, Brothers, and the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill But were another childhood-world my share, I would be born a little sister there. -George Eliot, "Brother and Sister Sonnets" (1874) e are-almost all-born into families, born into relationships. Like Mary Ann Evans, I was born a little sister-but had I encountered her "Brother and Sister" sonnets at twelve, I might have thrown the book across the room. George Eliot's fantasy of a perfected brother-sister relationship in these
more » ... lationship in these sonnets rings hollow and yet resonates profoundly with me. As a little sister myself, I wonder what could make the relationshipso often fraught with competition, envy, and neglect, yet potentially so richly rewarding-seem so powerfully right, so important to an adult woman's self-identification? For the narrator of the sonnets is certainly an adult woman, even if she is not George Eliot. Within the fantasy of the sibling relationship, Eliot invents and articulates female desire in the sonnets: desire for power, identification, and autonomy, mediated through memory and connection. Yetand this is the source of my imagined anger at these linesthe sisterhood that Eliot chooses, younger sister to an older brother, seems simply to reinscribe existing power relations between men and women; older brothers, to put it bluntly, dominate younger sisters. What compensates, in Eliot's fantasy, for that fact (acknowledged implicitly in the sonnets, overtly in her better-known sibling fantasy/nightmare, The Mill on the Floss)? The sonnets' speaker places herself in the position of the unseen auditor in a Wordsworth poem, the recipient of and sharer in the poet's vision, and finds herself empowered through boyish games, lost in her own daydreams without paying any price for inattention. The brother, in other words, provides imaginary access to a world of power and freedom without cost. Yet costs, outside of fantasy, are never absent from fa-Thanks to the many friends, colleagues, and teachers (many in more than one category!) who have read and commented on versions of this essay: , and the editors and anonymous readers at Signs. [Signs: Journal ofWomen in Culture and Society 1999, vol. 24, no. 2] ? 1999 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/99/2402-0005$02.00 This content downloaded from on Mon, 7 Apr 2014 23:23:40 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions 424 I Gruner milial relations. The speaker also envisions her own position as enhancing her brother's life: "His years with others must the sweeter be / For those brief days he spent in loving me" (Eliot 1874, 431; sonnet 9, lines 13-14). In a letter to her publisher, William Blackwood, Eliot wrote that "life might be so enriched if that relation were made the most of, as one of the highest forms of friendship" and also lamented that recent discussions of Byron had raised the specter of brother-sister incest, thus tainting the relationship with sexuality (Byatt and Warren 1990, 426). This suggestion of a "taint" is at least part of what interests me in Eliot's idealization of the sibling bond, for in the years when she was writing her sonnet sequence the relationship was inevitably tinged with sexuality-Byron or no Byron-through the legal cause celebre of the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. The bill, which prohibited a widower's marrying his sister-in-law after his wife's death, was ostensibly an anti-incest bill, designed to bring English common law in line with canon law of the Anglican church. Although it was supposedly a tool for regulating male sexuality, the bill exposed and raised anxieties about female sexuality and subjectivity as well, demonstrating the internal contradictions of the Victorian ideal of an asexualized domestic space. Although Eliot's sonnet sequence is about success, laws are about failure: the need to regulate arises only in the face of perceived, anticipated, or recurrent problems (in this case, problems with the operations of the family). Most commentators at the time agreed that there was not an enormous problem with men marrying their sisters-in-law; nonetheless, the thought that they might want to do so (and the even more troubling thought that the sisters-in-law might want it, too) was enough to spark a seven-decade debate. Brothers and sisters, whether by blood or marriage, are not the uncomplicated creatures that nostalgia and fantasy may want them to be, as Eliot well knew. The debates over the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill (1835-1907) exemplify the broader cultural anxieties over the positions of women and the family in the period and demonstrate the Victorian elevation of the brother-sister bond. The odd formulation by which the sister-in-law is universally known in these debates -"deceased wife's sister"distinguishes her from any other sister-in-law a man might have, such as his brother's widow.' At the Lev. 18:16 specifically proscribes marrying one's brother's widow; opponents of marriage with a deceased wife's sister argued by analogy that marrying one's wife's sister was similarly proscribed. Of course, the fact that Onan is enjoined to marry his brother's widow (though he refuses), in Gen. 38:8-9, contradicts this proscription. Arguments from the Hebrew scripture were notoriously ineffective in the case of marriage with a deceased wife's sister: one has only to think of Jacob's polygamous marriages to Rachel and Leah to dispute the argument from Leviticus.
doi:10.1086/495346 pmid:22315727 fatcat:e5vqzsmzz5fdlitkjkxusoqvhq