Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Re-Plotting Inheritance: The Triangulation of Legacies and Affinities in the Fatal Three

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Re-Plotting Inheritance: The Triangulation of Legacies and Affinities in the Fatal Three

Article excerpt

As it capitalizes on the narrative potentials of what is sensationally conceived as a "fatality",1 a fatal inheritance in more than one sense, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's fictional contribution to debates on the Deceased Wife's Sister Act in The Fatal Three (1888) questions not merely the laws and conventions governing kinship marriage, but the most prevalent plotlines of sensation fiction itself. In a triangulation of different kinds of legacies, the novel makes problematic the established structures of the traditional inheritance plot. But by engaging with some of the sensation novel's most recognizable formulae, it also revaluates literary legacies at large. On interconnected levels, a "fatality" is successively enacted as a cultural enterprise of coming to terms with the genre's popularity. As a result, inheritance as an established patrilineal structure that is regularly undercut, and yet as frequently reinstated, in women's writing of "the sensational sixties" is deliberately pushed aside.

Instead the novel's emphasis rests on the new significance of the individual family unit, what later came to be termed the nuclear family, in opposition to inherited laws regulating extended kinship ties. This is no less than a complete inversion of Braddon's representations of family life in her earlier fiction. But if the domestic Gothic seems to make way for a curious sentimentalization of parenthood and sibling love, this family ideal is beleaguered as much by new social and legal constructions as by customary arrangements. What threatens the privacy of individuals and their most domestic ties are suspicions of precisely these intimate family ties as an invidious network of consanguinity and affinity that borders on the incestuous - suspicions that are, however, exposed as completely unfounded, as merely yet another public way of policing the private.

Given Braddon's central position in the sensation genre with its structural and topical reliance on a form of Gothic seen to be inherent in bourgeois domesticity, the insistent idealization of the home that characterizes so much of this unusual novel is indeed perplexing. But it is the kernel of a provocative critique of the Victorian social panorama. By writing against such ideals of larger networks, partly still entrenched in the feudal model of responsible landowners and masters as paternal authority, The Fatal Three reconfigures the immediate family circle as a purely personal, more and more constricted, refuge. It is cut off from any further branches of an extended family, from a household populated by servants, tenants, retainers, dependents of various kinds. In other words, in dissecting the narrative as well as the social and cultural potentials of a new conceptualization of core family members, Braddon takes up both the mid- Victorian understanding of the home as sanctuary and the domestic Gothic as a, by then easily recognizable, cliché to play them out against each other. It is vital to note in what ways this emergent model of the core family of father, mother, and often an only child differs from the legacies of mid-century cultural and social policies in bourgeois households. Peculiarly self-confining, this triangle becomes intriguingly doubled within the intricate structure of The Fatal Three.

The novel, in fact, works through an interconnection of doubles within a triangulation of different forms of inheritance. Its reappraisal of literary and legal legacies is interlinked on three levels: first, the adaptation of inherited literary structures, including both the traditional inheritance plot and the domestic Gothic; second, the rethinking of the authority of law, religion, and convention; and third, a bringing together of new concepts of affinity beyond its understanding in terms of kinship structures. The opposing ecclesiastical, legal, and scientific definitions of affinity are evoked within ongoing debates on the Deceased Wife's Sister Act. As a relationship created through marriage, affinity is essentially conceived in opposition to consanguinity. …

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