Incest and the English Novel, 1684-1814
Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine
From the inadvertent marriage of a brother and sister in Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders to the sexually charged intrafamilial relationships in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, a remarkable number of English novels written between 1684 and 1814 predicate their plots on the tabooed possibility of incest. In the first full-length study to examine the striking prevalence of such plots in early English novels, Ellen Pollak focuses on literary representations of actual, averted, or imagined incest in works by Aphra Behn, Henry Fielding, and others. Pollak situates her readings in the context of changes in class and kinship organization that were taking place in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in the context of the accompanying emergence of modern cultural ideologies and representational forms. She argues that the historical realignment of the categories of class, kinship, and representation that took place with the shift from patriarchal to egalitarian models of familial order marked a transformative moment in the cultural construction of incest. Considering incest narratives in the light of social and discursive transformations and of contemporary debates surrounding incest and its definition in the domains of religion, moral philosophy, and the law, Incest and the English Novel shows how stories about incest served as sites for both the production and the critique of modern notions of gender and sexuality.
Pollak's illuminating readings will engage all serious students of the novel, especially those interested in how questions of gender and sexuality relate to narrative. Firmly establishing the importance of the topic for understanding eighteenth-century English literature and culture, her work is bound to spur further discussion of the significance of incest discourses in the early modern period and beyond.