"The shape of uncles": Capitalism, affection, and the cultural construction of the Victorian family


Although the father-centered family was a powerful instrument of social control in the Victorian period, and the father/child bond was presumed to be the natural prototype of all brands of civil interaction, I suggest that the gap between fathers and uncles, daughters and nieces is potentially wide enough to displace an entire system of cultural signification. My dissertation argues that a model of the extended family--especially and most significantly a model of the avunculate--was often implemented by Victorian writers to highlight the inadequacies of paternalistic and affective family paradigms. By examining the way that the paternal metaphor was used to neutralize the economic anxieties inherent in debates over domestic economy, social paternalism, penny-postage reform, and the usury laws, and by tracing these debates through works by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Margaret Oliphant, my project argues that "the shape of uncles" becomes a means of subverting this widespread privatization of the social world: a way of dislocating the affective family values that had been imposed upon the economic face of nineteenth-century culture. As questions about family structure are endemic to several different disciplinary arenas, my dissertation intervenes in both historical debates about the genesis of the nuclear family, and in feminist debates over the efficacy of father-centered literary criticism. Historical work on family development has begun to reassess the importance of extended kin in the formation and empowerment of the British middle class; likewise, feminist theorists are currently questioning the hegemony of oedipal thinking, and are beginning to problematize feminist reliance on the psychoanalytic model of family. Borrowing an anthropological model of the avunculate from Claude Levi-Strauss, I insist upon a difference between fathers and uncles that psychoanalytic and feminist criticism normatively denies: if fathers are the benchmark of affective family models, uncles are a familial trope fundamental to narratives of social and economic exchange. Moreover, my dissertation concludes that extended kinship ties under industrial capitalism are not traces of what Lawrence Stone has termed "obsolete" family models, but emergent middle-class ideologies of work, production, and reproduction

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