Article body

Brian Cooper’s book, Family Fictions and Family Facts: Harriet Martineau, Adophe Quetelet, and the Population Question in England, 1798-1859, is an extremely ambitious examination of the intersection of the idea of family with issues of classification, aggregation, and scientific methodology in the first half of the nineteenth century. While Cooper’s book is firmly grounded in the history of economic thought (it is a part of the Routledge Studies in the History of Economics series), it is also heavily indebted to the interdisciplinary cultural and epistemological histories of Michel Foucault and Mary Poovey. Cooper identifies a series of tensions that animate the discourses of family, political economy, and population in the wake of Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population: real versus ideal, individual versus aggregate, and agency versus determinism. By using these tensions as his organizing lens, Cooper is able to construct an exceedingly fresh and valuable narrative of the Malthusian legacy, one that links the familial ideals of domestic realism with the philosophical, mathematical, and statistical abstractions of economic man, “l’homme moyen” or “average man,” and the 1851 census. While not as argumentatively ambitious as Catherine Gallagher’s recent revisionary history of Malthus in nineteenth-century Britain, The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel, Cooper’s book is as far-reaching in its generic and discursive scope, extending its inquiry from Petty’s political arithmetic to George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentence,” and from Hannah More’s conduct books to popularizations of the 1851 Census.

The first three chapters of Cooper’s book lay the groundwork for the readings and conclusions of the final four. In his first chapter Cooper lays out his three central lines of inquiry: he will examine attempts to define and classify the family, the moral and policy imperatives built into the problem of aggregation, and the generic differences between the kinds of text that engage with the population issue. Next, in his long second chapter, Cooper constructions a dense overview of the legal and discursive context of the late-eighteenth-century family. Beginning with an analysis of the 1753 Marriage Act, Cooper goes on to discuss eighteenth-century debates about virtue and the passions in Britain’s emergent commercial society and to link these debates to new gender roles for the middle and working classes. Cooper uses these discussions to demonstrate the way that the family became the crucial site for questions of the moral, economic, and political welfare of the social body by the turn of the century, even before Malthus’s Essay focalized the issue through population principle.

Cooper then analyzes a range of texts—and genres of texts—that attempt to transform the “real” into the “ideal” through moral education and reform. Along with the language of class that emerged during this period, new representative types were developed which centered on self-regulation and a balance between sense and sensibility. While masculine and feminine ideals were increasingly organized through a separate spheres ideology that constructed them as complementary, both sexes needed to moderate their passions. By constructing ideal types and enjoining individuals to aspire to these types in their own lives, early nineteenth-century discourses sought to improve the social, economic, and political welfare of the nation. However, while the basic ideal of the self-regulated individual was common to these discourses, in other ways, these texts differed dramatically. Some texts, such as educational texts for the Irish, aimed their instruction directly at the poor whereas others were directed at the middle-class, such as Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Political Economy, with the idea that the working classes would learn through emulating their betters. While devotional texts focused on instruction in morality, conduct books sought the improvement of manners. These are a few of the myriad differences that Cooper explores in his chapter. Indeed, the differences are so profuse that it is at times difficult to keep a hold of the main thread of his inquiry.

With chapter four, Cooper turns to Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy and the first of his three central sites of analysis. While the primary work of the first three chapters is synthetic, the final chapters make more original contributions to our understanding of the figuration of family. Through a reading of Martineau’s first tale, Life in the Wilds, Cooper shows how Martineau “demonstrates that real life, in fiction at least, can be lived according to the principles of Smith and Malthus” (126). In the characters of her tales, that is, Martineau seeks to figuratively embody the ideal types and principles of political economy. The power of Cooper’s reading lies in the failures he identifies in this didactic project. Focusing on Cousin Marshall, while also drawing on other tales, Cooper shows the way Martineau’s own characters fail to fall into the moral-economic classification system of good/provident/honest and bad/improvident/dishonest which she has set up. Even when a character is “good” according to the ideals of prudent, hard-working “economic man,” that character can still represent a problematic “category error” when she is a woman. Furthermore, Martineau’s narrative of Cousin Marshall shows that in the system theorized by political economy, “goodness” is not necessarily rewarded, exposing a problem of determinism that undermines political economy’s assertion of individual agency. Finally, Cooper argues that Martineau’s didactic project was even further compromised by the incompatibility contemporaries saw between her status as an unmarried woman and her claims to narrative authority over characters’ decisions about procreation.

In chapter five, Cooper reads Quetelet’s A Treatise on Man and the Development of His Faculties as reproducing “Martineau’s reduction of the social world to one ideal type” (154), though through “figures of arithmetic” rather than “figures of speech.” Using statistics, Quetelet constructs the figure of an “average man” who is an ideal representative type of his “race” and time. Ostensibly descriptive rather than prescriptive, Quetelet developed his project of “social physics” as a new framework—an alternative to political economy and ethnology—for understanding the effect of the “private,” family practices of marriage and procreation on the “public” facts of population size and well-being. Circumscribing the parameters of the aggregate as that of a (a non-biologically understood) “race,” Quetelet used his statistical figures to explain the differences between societies such as that of Guanaxuato and that of England and France. In addition the problem of reductionism, Cooper identifies several other weaknesses that hamper Quetelet’s attempt to develop a rational, mathematical representation of the social state. Most notably, his use of statistics to create “average man” produces a representative figure that lacks agency, evoking the specter of statistical determinism.

Cooper’s third analytical site is the 1851 Census and the literature surrounding it which he analyses in chapter six, “What is to be deemed a family?” Cooper writes that the census “solved” the question of how to define the family by assigning it a fixed place, a household, and redefining family as head as occupier (200). Because it arose out of interest in sanitary reform, the census focused on smaller aggregate entities than the nation, centering on neighborhoods and families. This focus, combined with a shift from the language of the natural to that of the social norm, resulted in a situation in which positive deviations from the norm could be held up as ideals to be emulated. Through individual and collective sanitary reform measures, then, agency is reintroduced in the understanding of the relation between the individual and the aggregate. William Farr’s most striking revision of this relationship, however, emerges as he broadens his focus from a statistical comparison of neighborhoods to a comparison of races. By combining census date with Darwinian evolutionary theory, Farr reverses Malthus’s negative predictions about population growth, equating social evolution with natural evolution. Through their selection of their ideal marriage partners, individuals aid in the evolution of their nation, even their species. For Farr, then eugenics both restores individual agency and recreates a pre-Malthusian model of social perfectibility.

In his final chapter, Cooper reviews the main themes of both his overarching historical narrative and his localized readings and makes some provocative links to contemporary economic theory. His overview is particularly helpful, because it helps the reader see clearly, in retrospect, the argumentative path she has been following. In fact, the greatest weakness of Cooper’s history is the tendency of his own narrative and argumentative arc to get lost amid the density of the data and distinctions he explores. It is not always easy to discriminate the major from the subordinate strands of his analysis. This weakness, however, is more than counterbalanced by the very complexity and comprehensiveness that generates it. For example, one of threads that emerges repeatedly throughout all his discussion is the relationship of women to the ideal types constructed by the discourses of the family. This thread, while not corresponding neatly with the organizing terms of his argument, makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding both of these texts he discusses and of problematics of family in the first half of the nineteenth century.