I considered putting this in GQ, but since my question was prompted by two novels I recently read, I thought I’d throw it out here instead.
I just finished reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, and in both novels, part of the plot revolved around the title character having a relationship with a cousin.
(Spoilers below, stop reading if you don’t want either of the above spoiled)
In Jane Eyre, towards the end of the novel, her cousin is about to embark on a missionary tour and wants Jane to marry him and accompany him. Everyone seems to take it as a matter of course that she’d agree, so even though she doesn’t wind up with him, it’s not because marrying one’s cousin was frowned upon.
In Rebecca, we find towards the end that Rebecca has been carrying on a relationship with her cousin and it was the possibility that she was pregnant by him that prompted her husband to kill her. Again, it wasn’t the fact that the man was her cousin that was at issue…it was the infidelity (among other things, since Rebecca was painted as a generally evil character).
It struck me as odd that this topic was treated so casually in both novels. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, and Rebecca in 1938. I would have thought that by 1938, marrying cousins was edging towards taboo. Both were set in England, so is there possibly a cultural explanation? Am I totally off the wall here to find this odd?
It definitely used to be more acceptable. It seems to have been an upper class English thing. The stories of P.G. Wodehouse include at least a couple of episodes in which aunts wanted cousins to marry each other, rather than unsuitable suitors from more humble origins.
My great-great-great grandfather married his first cousin without apparent scandal. This was 19th century America, not Great Britain. While they weren’t staggeringly wealthy, they both came from a family of prosperous upper-class planters.
Einstein married his cousin. Used to be, lots of people did; it was often a nice safe arrangement. It was entirely acceptable in Western society until 80 years ago or so, and even now it happens in the US every so often (though they don’t usually tell the neighbors).
As it turns out, there isn’t much reason to worry about marrying your cousin; the risk for genetic problems is almost the same as for the general population. The royal families of Europe had problems, sure, but almost no one else on the planet is that inbred, and ordinary people have no trouble producing healthy children with their cousins.
If you feel like doing a little research, the 4.15.02 issue of Time had a short article on this issue.
Marriage to cousins keeps property in the same family. In America, there often wasn’t a very big gene pool to pick from on the frontier or in rural areas, which led to a good many cousin marriages. Plus (as happened where I grew up) a single family that has 10 kids who live to marry soon (two generations or less) becomes relatives to hundreds if not thousands of people, thus making marrying outside your kin-group even more unavoidable.
With the advent of trains, planes and automobiles meant that people became a lot less isolated and the number of people they interacted with was incomparably higher than the number their grandparents had known at their age. Also, marrying somebody from 50 or even 1000 miles away no longer meant that you’d probably never see your family again, so “geographically mixed” marriages became more common and cousin marrying became a lot more icky.
Interesting trivia about Einstein’s cousin marriage: he actually left his first wife for her after meeting her for the first time in years at a family function. (His first wife, Mileva Maric, believed by some to have been on par with Einstein himself in intelligence and mathematical ability and a definite contributor to his theories, had a daughter by Einstein before they married- she was evidently given away for adoption and it is completely unknown what became of her link).
Jane Austen also had cousins marrying in Mansfield Park and two of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins also went down the aisle together. I was familiar with these and other aforementioned works for years before I realized that today’s society frowns on cousins marrying.
And don’t get me started on hobbits marrying their relations. Seems like everyone in the Shire is related to everyone else.
That’s just because Hobbits generally trace their geneaologies further than Bigs, not because they’re actually marrying closer. In fact, most of those “relationships” are via marriage at one or more links, so there’s not actually any traced genetic connection. Incidentally, Aragorn and Arwen are also distantly related, being first cousins many times removed. First cousins were considered too close by the Elves, but borderline.
Wasn’t there some Elf in The Silmarillion who lusted after his first cousin, but couldn’t marry her because that was frouned upon? Didn’t he eventually go completely mad and betray Gondolin to Morgoth, or something like that?
I believe in much of the Middle East it’s traditional for a young woman’s single male cousins (or rather, her father’s brother’s unmarried sons – it’s usually male-line relatives, not just any ol’ cousins) to get “first dibs” when it comes time to marry her off. I have an Egyptian friend whose parents married this way.
As mentioned above, this keeps inheritance/dowry money in the family. For the bride this system also has the advantage of giving her the chance to marry someone she actually knows and perhaps likes already. In more conservative areas, the woman might never have been allowed to speak to a man who wasn’t a relative.
Like dangermom said, there’s not really much genetic risk involved in first cousins marrying and having children together. What can cause real problems is when first cousin marriages continue within the same family for several generations. If your parents are first cousins, you share more genetic material with your own first cousins than you would if your parents were unrelated. After enough generations of such relationships in one family, you might as well be sleepin’ with your siblin’s. But this rarely happened outside of royal families, and it seems that even in the old days people were aware of the risks of excessive intermarriage within the same family and tried to discourage it.
Just looking at my own family tree here. Let’s see what we got:
My maternal grandmother and grandmother had the same last name. Prior to their marriage. They were from a very small village in Sicily. Pretty good bet they were at least second cousins, I would think, but nobody in the family is talking, especially not my mom, and she’s no longer among the living, so whatever the story is, it will stay a secret now.
On my father’s side, the brother and sister [McX] married the brother and sister [McY]. One of these pairings became my paternal grandparents. They were also from a small village, although this time in Ireland. Not even close to incestous, but it means all my cousins on that side are my cousins twice, sort of.
Something about those small rural villages in backwards (at least then) countries, isn’t there?
In the Gone With The Wind example above, the Wilkes, Hamiltons, Winfields and Burrs were all cousins in the same family who apparently had been marrying each other for generations. While it’s never said that Melanie’s poor health is from inbreeding, it could be possible. And Scarlett’s mother Ellen is in love with her own first cousin Pierre, and dies with his name on her lips. She only marries Gerard O’Hara after the cousin dies.
Laura Ingall’s mother’s sister married her father’s brother, and her mother’s brother married her father’s sister. While her family had no descendants (none of her sisters had children, and her only daughter had a son who died), there are people today with genetic material from both her mother’s and father’s lines (double second and third cousins).
Don’t think it’s been mentioned yet, but in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest Jack and Gwendolyn are discovered to be cousins, but it’s not even mentioned as an obstacle to their plans to marry.