Wednesday 24 July 2013

'This Genealogical Passion': Hardy, Incest and Degeneration

Gemma Arterton as Tess in the BBC's 2008 adaptation
‘He seemed to have such prescriptive rights in women of her blood.’

A brief plot summary of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved (1897), published in its original form as a serial in 1892 as The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, is enough to convince most of the oddity of this novel, which reads like a perverted fairytale with less pretence to realism than Hardy’s more famous works. Jocelyn Pierston, the protagonist, falls in love with three generations of the same family of women across a forty-year period – the original Avice Caro, her daughter, and then finally her granddaughter, with the repetition of events being a fuelling reason for his passion. Yet this strange novel, with its concentration on familial ties, genealogical inheritance and potential incest brings to light themes which dominate throughout Hardy’s more canonical novels.

The above quote brings to issue many of these concerns. Jocelyn’s ‘rights’ stem in part from his kinship with the women of the Caro family – the original Avice is his first cousin. Cousin marriage was a fraught topic in the period and one which is dwelt on at various points by Hardy. Marriage between first cousins was legal in Britain, as it remains now, and far from frowned upon. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were cousins, and intrafamilial marriage was a useful tool for keeping property in the family for both the aristocratic and middle classes. But the emerging field of genetics, combined with an increasing interest and belief in evolutionary theory, meant that some were concerned about the potentially negative impact of a lack of variation within family lines. Anthropologist John Lubbock tried (unsuccessfully) to have a question on cousin marriage included on the 1870 census, and Charles Darwin’s uneasiness on the topic, due to his own marriage to first cousin Emma Wedgwood is made clear in his The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868). Darwin writes on the problem:

‘Before turning on to Birds, I ought to refer to man, though I am unwilling to enter on this subject, as it is surrounded by natural prejudices.’

From Walter Paget's illustrations for The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved
In Hardy, both sides of the argument are made clear. Take Sue and Jude – a pair of first cousins from the more famous Jude the Obscure (1895). For Jude, at least, part of their attraction stems from their sameness, which is clear from when he first sees Sue’s picture and later when he sees her in his own clothing:

‘Sitting in his only arm-chair he saw a slim and fragile being masquerading as himself on a Sunday.’

Yet the couple’s offspring are weak compared to the child produced by Jude with the genealogically distinct and biologically robust Arabella. Sameness isn't straightforwardly attractive or desirable. Jocelyn’s relationship with the first Avice demonstrates similar reservations. He does not marry her, but abandons her for Marcia – the daughter of a different family, the enemy of his own, and thus the most perfect example of exogamy. Their difference is what drives their attraction – ‘But hereditarily we are mortal enemies, dear Juliet’, Jocelyn tells her playfully – yet, not only is their happiness is short-lived, but part of their sexual play is to elide this familial difference, posing as brother and sister in order to enjoy their first night together.

Confusion over the desirability of cousinhood continues in The Return of the Native (1878) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). In the former, it is hard to doubt Mrs Yeobright’s conclusion that it would have been better for her son Clym to have married his docile first-cousin Thomasin than the outsider Eustacia. And yet, in Tess, the suggestion of kinship between the lowly Durbeyfields and the d’Urbervilles is the precipitating event of the heroine’s ruin.

The repeated nature of Jocelyn’s romantic obsession however goes further to raise issues beyond those surrounding cousin marriage. His involvement with Avice the first and second goes some way to rendering his marriage to the third incest by affinity (the religious law forbidding sexual relationships with connections through marriage as well as through blood). Concern over the biological consequences of potentially incestuous relationships is therefore paired with the moral dubiousness of having sex with those too closely connected to a previous partner, casting a hint of uneasiness over Angel’s companionship with Tess’s sister Liza-Lu at the end of the 1891 novel. Marriage with the deceased wife’s sister was not legalised until 1907, meaning that ‘incest’ with those who are not blood relations is potentially more worrying than repeated intermarriage within a family, in a way which seems very alien from our modern ideas.

Finally, Jocelyn’s obsession with the blood link between all three Avices (‘it was the historic ingredient in this genealogical passion – if its continuity through three generations may be so described – which appealed to his perseverance at the expense of his wisdom’) mirrors Hardy’s own with the larger narratives at work in his fictions. These are the macro-narratives of landscape, whether the rocky peninsula of The Well-Beloved or the unchanging wilderness of Egdon Heath, as well as the narratives of human inheritance. While landscapes remain unchanged however, the story of human life is one of degeneration and loss. Just as each successive Avice fails to live up to the first, Hardy’s fiction is filled with the idea that, whoever we marry, the race is deteriorating. In The Return of the Native, Hardy writes:

‘Physically beautiful men--the glory of the race when it was young--are almost an anachronism now; and we may wonder whether, at some time or other, physically beautiful women may not be an anachronism likewise.’

And he leaves it to Tess to suggest that, beyond the physical deterioration and even extinction which could result from natural processes of evolution, the grand narrative of history could make all stories repetitions (like Jocelyn’s), which are ultimately futile:

‘Because what's the use of learning that I am one of a long row only—finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that's all. The best is not to remember that your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands' and thousands', and that your coming life and doings 'll be like thousands' and thousands.’

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Further Walter Paget illustrations from the novel available from Victorian Web.

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