Review – ‘Should I marry my cousin’, BBC3 – Iplayer release Tues 4th July 2017

In this intriguing program that deserves a main BBC outing, Habib a young Bradfordian worked her way through the complexities of decision-making around what she learnt was a significant cultural factor for families with links to north-eastern Pakistan. Her learning process took her through conversations about values, money, religion, culture, the impact on women, and crucially for Habib genetics.

Her enthrallment was captured in the film as she was tutored by her parents, who are not cousins, on the complexity of cousin marriages amongst each of their respective families. This was tempered by her shock at the findings of Born in Bradford study and results from the London Borough of Redbridge that had captured cousin marriages as a factor in genetic health conditions and early deaths of children. The impact of a communal knowledge about these issues was presented through anecdotally cross-community street interviews, some of which captured a stereotype often imposed on rural, isolated communities of ‘inbreeding’.

In an attempt to understand more about the risks of consanguineous parenthood Habib met with geneticists to explore what the issues were. She was taken by an uncle, who is an advocate of cousin marriages, to meet a cousin couple with disabled and non-disabled children, watched a Jewish genetic knowledge project in action and had her DNA tested. As a person with a dominant genetic condition, it was hard not to empathise with Habib’s struggle to both understand and quantify the numbers and statistics of risk but also to internalise and rationalise the emotional response to them.

‘Ideal marriage : its physiology and technique /’ . Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Beyond this, I was struck by how Habib’s family stories were given no context within historical British culture and how fundamentally the concept of cousin marriages struck people on the street as something ‘other’. As a PhD student whose core research data is based on the genealogical reconstruction of family trees arising from within Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it is clear that we don’t need to go back many generations to start finding cousin relationships and a consanguineous marriage culture in parts of the country and parts of society.[i]

An English maternal great-aunt of my own, who had worked in the Somerset silk factories spent her life in a committed relationship with her male first cousin but by the time they had reached adulthood the British culture around marriage had firmly turned against them and the relationship was not formalised. For an understanding of which we can turn our gaze upon a father and son surname Darwin who were part of an upper-middle-class kin-group steeped in a consanguineous marriage culture.[ii]

George Darwin, son of Charles in consequence of his father’s work on evolution, attempted to study late Victorian levels of cousin marriages amongst the British by writing to elite families. He garnered a  mixed set of results in the late 1800s, from which he estimated a rate of 2-3% and also a level of ignorance about interrelatedness amongst marriage partners. An exploration of cousin marriages in other parts of Euro-British culture draws attention to rural communities where levels of and reasons for cousin marriages have been explored in places like Wiltshire and Aberdeenshire with context from the northern Netherlands. The findings are echoing what Habib heard from her circle of kin, a coherence of values between the marriage partners, knowledge of the necessary skills for the core family enterprise and their birth families and safeguarding of hard fought for assets.[iii]

All of which is recognisable amongst my own Aberdeenshire ancestors who would be placed amongst the mid-strata peasant tenants, typified by having some economic security but which required the usage of all family labour to maintain. Through the nineteenth century, with generation after generation, it is possible to see internal kin-family marriages, as well as sibling exchange marriages and also some family members not marrying as they displayed lifestyles, men as well as women, as ‘adjutants’ to siblings. This sort of society has been discussed by the French historical anthropologist Martine Segalen who noted cousin marriages as a component of peasant societies within Western European nations and hit upon the idea of stranger-cousin marriages. The notion being that the demographic facts meant that ultimately there would be a ‘kin’ connection between many couples but it was a coincidence.[iv] By understanding the web of social connections that can be recovered through sources like genealogical reconstruction, wills and testaments and newspaper clippings the density of kin across the British landscape, the heart of my thesis, can be apparent in a manner reflective of the village shown to Habib by her father.

The construct of the notion of a peasant society within the western European umbra has to be taken as suggestive of something past, marginal, non-modern. So very much dovetailing with attitudes today around cousin marriage and maybe in the eyes of some with what Habib encountered in Pakistan as she joined her parents passing the doors of grandfather, uncles, and cousins and viewing the ‘family’ land. Habib’s visit to her kinship’s place took in the village graveyard which was crowned by the tomb of a foundational patriarch. The family attachment exhibited by Habib’s father and wider relatives evoke a correlation for me amongst some Presbyterian Scots and Irish-Scots in the US studied by Gwen K Neville.[v] Neville’s work to understand extensive annual kin-gatherings, involving all the descendants of a single nineteenth-century farmer that have continued into the modern era, which she regarded as having a quasi-religious aspect to them. In her summary, Neville emphasised ‘The requirements of family and community over and against those of personhood and independent identity are a part of the conflicting demands on the Protestant individual.‘ Which equally serves as a good summary of the issues tackled by Habib, a young Muslim woman thinking about cousin marriage.

It would be remiss to conclude this review without an acknowledgement of the insight, Habib gained as a woman raised as she often alluded to in a culture that stresses individualism, about cousin marriage and women. Habib through discussions with her mother, deeply opposed to cousin marriage from her first marriage, grandmother, aunts and her similar aged cousins which while not convincing her about a consanguineous relationship surprised her that in some ways they created a safer space for women. This complexity has been studied in recent years by Muhammed Zaman through interviews in Pakistan’s southern Punjab from which a complex mix of individual choice and family influences emerge around cousin marriages including the nuances of this for women, well worthy of a read, just as this BBC3 program is a watch.[vi]

[i] Malcolm T. Smith, ‘Estimates of cousin marriage and mean inbreeding in the United Kingdom from ‘birth briefs’’, Journal of Biosocial Science, 33, no.1 (2001), pp.55-66.

[ii] George Darwin, ‘Reprints and Reflections, Marriages between first cousins in England and their effects’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 38, (2009), pp.1429-1439.

[iii] Andrew Blaikie, ‘Coastal Communities in Victorian Scotland: What makes North-East Fisher families distinct?’, Local Population Studies, (2002), pp.15-31., Hilde Bras, Frans van Poppel and Kees Mandemakers, ‘”Relatives as spouses: Preferences and opportunities for kin marriage in a Western society.”‘, American Journal of Human Biology, 21, (2009), pp.793-804., Cathy Day and Malcolm Smith, ‘Cousin marriage in south-western England in the nineteenth century’, Journal of Biosocial Science, 45, no.3 (2013), pp.405-414.

[iv] Martine Segalen, Historical Anthropology of the Family, J. C. Whitehouse and Sarah Matthews (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[v] Gwen Kennedy Neville, Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion In American Protestant Culture The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life Working Paper No. 22, (Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, 2003).

[vi] Muhammad Zaman, ‘Socio-Cultural security, emotions and exchange marriages in Agrarian Community’, South Asia Research, 28, 3, (2008), pp.285-298., Muhammad Zaman, ‘Exchange Marriages in a Community of Pakistan: Adequate Social Exchange’, The Family Journal, 22, (2014), pp.69-77.

Hilda Johnston, Lady Butterfield 1883-1957

Hilda is the key figure in my recently published article, ‘Change and Continuity, Networking, Newspaper, Kinships and Twentieth Century Elite Women’ Family and Community History (2017) which can be found here.

By birth, she was part of a powerful kin-based business network centred upon the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As an individual woman of wealth, she hit her peak confidence from her late 50s through to her death as an aid organiser, peace campaigner and as a person who could exert socio-political influence. The article discusses her personal development, that took her from social activity, into the heart of self-financing, self-organising philanthropy of the mid-twenieth century as part of a century’s worth of social change; Hilda was the daughter of a self-declared woman who lunched, as well as the mother of a woman who was on the cusp of being a breakthrough figure at the New York Bar Association. She was also twice a wife who experienced varied forms of patriarchy but who benefitted from an elite education advanced by her father that exposed her to ideas of change about women’s roles in society. As the wife of a Yorkshire Tory grandee and cousin-in-law of the presidential Roosevelt’s in her second marriage her portrait is part of the National Portrait Gallery collection.

The article places Hilda, her mother Ethelinda Thorsen and daughter Carolinda Waters into three types of kinship structure, her close stem and collateral biological kin, parents, siblings, child, spouses, nephews and nieces. Then her wider matrifocal kin group, her female relatives by biology and law who may well have inspired her directly by active relationships or indirectly through stories, the Great Aunt, doyenne of a Jacksonville mansion, her mother’s globetrotting sister, her female cousins who shared her educational experiences or who exercised influence in Nazi-occupied Europe. Thirdly there were her fictive kinships made up of her women from the elite American families like the Roosevelts and Merrils, and women she had been schooled with at Vassar College who eased her arrival into London’s high society of the 1920s.

Not only does the article discuss ideas of kinship but it tackles the interaction between wealthy women from influential families and newspapers. Initially querying who was manipulating whom the paper digs further to consider whether the relationship with the press was a tool for further social power even through the seemingly powerless women’s pages. All of these elements are brought together to consider whether the economic breakthrough exhibited by elite women in elite organisations in the 1970s ought to be examined through the lens of their mothers and grandmothers life arcs.


Women, patriarchy and kinship

In order to get a fuller understanding of the role of kinship in nineteenth century British society it is important to explore the nuance of the kinship-feminism encounter. The importance of women’s kinship especially kinship between women, matrifocality, to societal patterns is often overlooked but kinship reconstruction and collation brings their choices and consequences to the fore. The real excitement is to discern whether women in the past could operate through and within kinship in such a manner as to be able to disrupt the overwhelmingly powerful cultural patriarchy.

An example of this would be Jane Bell of Bridge Street, Lockerbie, in Scotland’s south-west borders, in August 1889 this 30 year old mother went to register her third child, James. By this stage not an uncommon nor especially courageous act. Even her social position as a single mother was not particularly significant as the Dumfries hinterland like Aberdeenshire in the north-east had high rates of out of wedlock births stretching back decades. Jane registered her second son as James Comrie Turner Bell this known fact creates a number of speculative queries.

Jane was amongst the least well-off residents of Bridge Street whilst census records would indicate that Mr. Comrie Turner, as a saddler, in his early forties with a wife and children was probably a better off neighbour . Turner was part of a family of saddlers, the pater of which had died in July 1889 also called Comrie. Did Jane Bell name her new son in order to honour the more powerful family and the recently dead or was she making a much bolder statement regarding the paternity of the new born? Jane’s next child’s naming, Sarah Hill Bell also reflected upon another descendant of the elder Comrie Turner and it is known that the Jarrow born great-grandchildren visited Lockerbie as George James Turner Hill was enumerated in Lockerbie in 1881 aged 10. The births of the younger Comrie Turner’s children also help pinpoint his families removal to Edinburgh as one son is born in Lockerbie in 1888 and the next son is born in Edinburgh in 1890. Was the move arranged in response to the grandfather’s death freeing up capital for a fresh start or was a fresh start required due to tensions around an illegitimate son living up the road? The answer being unresolvable but the question points to a formidable female decision making.

Jane Bell was not the only woman within her matrifocal kin group to be an unmarried mother, her aunt, namesake and near neighbour had five illegitimate children, one of those children had her own out of wedlock child. Jane Bell’s maternal cousins who lived and worked in rural Kirkcudbrightshire had and were themselves illegitimate. Nor were Jane’s male relatives adverse to marrying and gaining a step-child. Jane herself did not marry but her daughter Sarah Hill Bell brought a nine year old daughter and an 30 week foetus to her first wedding in 1919 aged 27. The 19 year old groom having his own illegitimate cousins but by the 1930s the irregularity of family arrangements for Jane Bell’s descendants had become a taboo subject to be plastered over.

In Scotland’s south-west then births out of wedlock were not necessarily the end of the world. it is likely though that Jane as a working class woman was further insulated against disapproval because her father’s relatives were a numerical social force on Lockerbie’s Bridge Street. Whilst Comrie Turner’s departure with his family to Edinburgh (into the area west of the Records Office that became less than salubrious) can only be speculated against for motives it does hint that the kinship of women could exert some influence against the power of patriarchy. Thus working-class women’s relationships raise signs and signals at personal, familial and communal levels about the nuance of kinship-feminism encounters but Bourdieu contended that women within patriarchy are disadvantaged partly due to the internalisation of the patriarchal forms yet some women with capital resources can make cognitive breaks from parts of the patriarchal dominance. So theoretically women with greater levels of access to social and economic influence i.e., women from the middle classes should have an increased likelihood of influencing, challenging and changing patriarchal notions inherent within kinship especially if they themselves are embedded within matrifocal kin relationships.

A longitudinal study based upon a reconstructed female social networks descended from Aberdeenshire collating evidence regarding the history of elite women of British-American backgrounds is discussed in ‘Change and Continuity, Networking, Newspaper, Kinships and Twentieth Century Elite Women’ in Journal of Family and Community History Autumn 2016.