Primitive Marriage: Victorian Anthropology, the Novel, and Sexual Modernity

Kathy Psomiades


Oxford University Press


Marriage is the novel's traditional subject matter. But what happens to the novel when another genre of writing lays claim to the novel's traditional material? Primitive Marriage: Victorian Anthropology, the Novel, and Sexual Modernity shows how the foundational ideas of the new discipline of anthropology gave late-Victorian novelists and social scientists ways of rethinking heterosexual romance by referring to a new kind of history, one in which marriage systems, sexual behavior, and reproductive practices were temporalized and given historical agency.

Temporalizing sexual relations, locating them in evolutionary and historical time, anthropologists and the novelists who wrote after them began to think modernity in sexual terms. This transformation of politics into sexual politics put sexuality and gender at the center of liberal stories of progress. The Victorian theorists responsible for this transformation--from well-known figures like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud to lesser-known writers like John McLennan and Henry Maine--and the novelists who engaged them--Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Henry James, Sarah Grand, H. Rider Haggard, Thomas Hardy--not only helped produce sexually modern subjects, but also the theories about sexuality, time, and politics that we still draw upon to think modernity today.