‘Family Ties in Victorian England’ by Claudia Nelson
Offering an engaging look at the family lives of Britons in the 19th century, Claudia Nelson’s Family Ties in Victorian England is a delightful journey through the intricacies of familial relationships during the Victorian period. Nelson divides her book into categories of relationship, offering chapters dealing with husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and so on. Each chapter is liberally scattered with the kind of uniquely Victorian anecdotes that one can expect from any broad history of the period—people frequently “descend” into such unfortunate circumstances as “incurable insanity,” “invalidism,” and (worst of all?) the working class.
Nelson’s book is an unusually accessible text for something written by an academic presumably for other academics and one which benefits greatly from Nelson’s clear passion for the topic. (Her other books include studies of fatherhood and adoption in the 19th century.) Her prose is evidently fascinated by the remarkable foreignness of a culture so tantalizingly close to our own and this preoccupation goes a long way towards making the book breeze by.
The main downfall of the book is its lack of variety of source materials. Nelson is not a historian, per se, but rather a literature scholar and her choice of sources reveals her own background. While she makes initial efforts at going beyond contemporary literature, with occasional quotes from etiquette manuals and newspapers, the majority of the book hinges on short stories, novels, and works of polemical fiction, aided by biographical material about literary figures of the age. This actually works pretty well, particularly when she uses biography to provide examples of various relationships, but one does wonder occasionally at her unquestioning use of literature of a source of historical record.
On the whole, however, Family Ties is a great little foray into the Victorian world. Its focus on the domestic sphere and family offers a refreshing look into a well-studied period and I often found myself pleasantly surprised by some little factoid, glimpsed biography, or literary insight. With less than 200 pages, Family Ties is a quick read, but one which leaves you scouring the bibliography and notes section for more.