Tag Archives: novel

Brothers in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel

by Anna A. Berman

A woman looks through a window at two men.
“Vae victis!”  Wood engraving by Joseph Swain, based on the artwork of George Du Maurier, for Gaskell, Elizabeth. Wives and Daughters, The Cornhill Magazine 10 (October 1864): facing 385. Scanned by Simon Cooke.

Think of a nineteenth-century English novel that features a significant sister-sister or sister-brother pair.  Easy, right?  Now think of an English novel about two brothers. 

As someone who began by studying Russian literature—which is full of brothers—it came as a shock to me when I realized that there are virtually no canonical English novels that focus on a brother-brother pair.  Given the Victorians’ reverence for the sibling bond, why is strange omission?  And why do the rare novels about brothers almost always have the same plot: two brothers—the “most faithful of friends”—fall in love with the same woman? (think of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Like and Unlike)

Comparing the English with the Russian tradition gave me my first clue to the answer. One of the primary differences between the two nations—as far as brothers are concerned—is that the English honored primogeniture, while the Russians split their estates amongst all their children.  This has major implications for the types of plots authors in each nation could create. Courtship is central to English family novels, and with wealth as a requirement for single men in want of wives, only one brother had a desirable place in the English marriage plot.

This fact goes far in explaining the standard English brother-plot of romantic rivalry. Having a single beloved for the brothers helps maintain the linearity of the family and plot. While the Russians thought of family as a conglomeration of kin in the present and wrote “loose and baggy monster” plots that sprawl in all directions, the English focused on the family’s progression through time; wealth and title were to be kept together and passed on to a single heir who would continue the family line.

Brothers offer a challenge to this focused structure, but that challenge can be mitigated if only one marries and produces heirs. In the English novel, the brother who loses the romantic competition is removed from the family’s linear progression to restore harmony at the novel’s close.  Most often he dies, or else he is turned into a “sister” who remains unwed and cares for his brother’s children (e.g. Seth Bede or John Martindale in Charlotte Yonge’s Heartsease or Brother’s Wife).

The two-brother-one-lover triangle also suggests mimetic desire at work.  When—in novel after novel—brothers who describe their relationship as “something more than affection” and consider the other to be “an angel” fall in love with the same woman, it opens room for speculation that such romantic triangulation might be a strategy for displacing an illicit form of desire onto a “safe” object. The brothers’ romantic rivalries could be seen as a way of neutralizing an initial threat of incestuous, homosexual desire entering the family by replacing it with the more openly addressable threat of jealousy and hatred, which could then, in turn, be resolved.  In essence, this resolution is the primary plot for English brothers.

The role of brothers is but one example of what looking comparatively at the Russian and English family novel can reveal. Such an approach forces us to rethink existing theories of the novel that assume a conservative function for the family, driven by the genealogical imperative and linear descent, and offers a new understanding of how family structure shapes plot in the nineteenth-century novel.

To read more, see Anna A. Berman, “The Problem with Brothers in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel.” Victorian Review, vol. 46 no. 1, 2020, p. 49-66. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2020.0008.

Julianne Smith: Adaptations and Unpublished Manuscripts

By Sabrina Schoch and Reba Ouimet

At last year’s Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada conference, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity for a discussion with Dr. Julianne Smith, a speaker at the conference and the recipient of the 2004 Innovative Teaching Award, Center for Teaching & Learning, from Pepperdine University. Dr. Smith sat down and talked with us about lost manuscripts, different adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, and her address at the conference. We were interested in discovering how she describes Victorian studies to undergraduate students and in finding out what she thinks is the best way to introduce these studies to students. Dr. Smith explained her teaching philosophy in regards to Victorian literature: “I think the best way to introduce Victorian studies to undergraduates is to talk about the things that you’re excited about yourself, and so I love the context and history of the period…. I talk about the weird and wonderful things the Victorians did, and then with those in mind, [I] begin to look at the text…. I rely on my own interests and ability to convey interest.”

In addition to inquiring about Dr. Smith’s teaching methods, we also asked about her address at the VSAWC conference. Dr. Smith’s current research concerns the unpublished manuscripts of plays, and she acknowledged that “no one has done much analysis on [these plays nor has anyone taken] those plays into the scholarly conversation to look at how they add to or shape the reception of Bleak House itself as a novel.”

We noted that “Jane Eyre changed the way the story [of Bleak House] is being told” and asked whether the Bleak House adaptations have had the same effect. Dr. Smith responded, “Bleak House changes, and because Bleak House is a novel that doesn’t identify a central character in its title, even the first reviewers ask[ed] questions and tried to figure out whose story [it is], and the theatrical adaptations tend to identify a central character and tell that story.”

Not only does the original story lack a central character but the resulting adaptations, the changes in perspectives, and the competing characters also reveal what and who interested the Victorians most.  Nobody particularly cares about Esther, the “sometimes” protagonist; Joe and Lady Dedlocke compete for the starring role. Much like today’s readers, the Victorians were most interested in the tragic characters and melodrama.

We then touched briefly on the BBC adaptation of Bleak House, and Dr. Smith stated that the BBC version “compares shifting class focus on how we receive Bleak House and interpret it, versus how the Victorians did.”

Finally, we asked Dr. Smith if she was aware of any exciting new directions in which Victorian studies could go. “Well for me,” she said, “when I started grad school in the mid ’90s, all of the technology and ways of searching online publications, or even searching the British library catalogue online, was … new and exciting. I didn’t realize the implications of this at the time, and things have really gotten better from there…. Access to those texts, [which] have been so obscure and remote for most scholars, has changed everything. Expectations are higher for students now.”


Julianne Smith

Dr. Smith is an associate professor of English at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. She holds a PhD from Texas Christan University, and both a master and bachelor of arts from Abilene Christian University. Her academic interests include gender, religion, Victorian women writers, and Victorian theatre. She is currently working on Victorian Drama in the 1850s and the Transformation of Literary Consciousness, to be published shortly in Victorian Transformations.