History Behind the Story #5: Kissing Cousins: Did People Really Marry Their First Cousins?
The simple answer is: yes.
This is taboo in a lot of cultures these days, isn’t it? I remember my mom telling me as a child that Victoria and Albert were first cousins and thinking… Whoa. And yet, for most of history, and across all cultures that I have studied, cousin marriage has been a common occurrence.
If you’ve read Southern Rain, you’ll know that (spoiler alert!!!) Shannon’s brother marries their first cousin. This may have been a jolt for some of you. When I was looking about for something to ground the story in the historical era, I thought: yep, that’ll do it! You might think life wasn’t much different (and I do have a theory that people have been the same since time began), but boy howdy were their practices different.
I read a lot of British literature and novels, and I think the book that really pushes it on this subject is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, where the couple not only share a set of grandparents but were also raised in the same house. When I read the book as a teenager, I thought, “Whew, that was odd!” and kind of filed that away in one of those unexplainable-historical-things-that-perhaps-never-existed folders. And then I got into Georgette Heyer. She plays not just with cousin marriage, but also with cousin love a lot. In Frederica, they’re distant relations, perhaps not really related, so you think, “Okay, no biggie.” But she goes for it full blast with The Grand Sophy and The Unknown Ajax. Keep in mind that Heyer was writing from the 1920’s through the 1970’s, so she was obviously looking back on the Regency Era and finding the same thing as Austen: cousin marriage was a way of life. I suppose I always heavily emphasized that was until I found a little-known short story by Heyer online called A Proposal To Cicely that was actually set in the 1920’s. The second line of the story lets you know that Richard is Cicely’s “first cousin once removed.” They were an extremely modern, fun couple, and the guy was hung up on his cousin. And that was when it hit me: it’s only very recently that this has not been a thing.
The temptation is really there for me to say that this happened a lot more in Britain and Europe than America. I certainly see it a lot more in European fiction, and it would make sense, given that the need that royalty and nobility engendered to make prudent political and financial choices often seem to push the same families into alliances over and over. That would, in turn, make the practice socially acceptable and even in vogue. And yet… Every time I formulate an argument to that effect, I find a strong counter-argument or example from American history that proves that the exact same thing was happening here.
For example, did you know that Ashley and Melanie Wilkes were cousins? Gone With the Wind has a character say that the Wilkeses and Hamiltons always marry their cousins. And it was actually set up for Ashley’s sister to marry Melanie’s brother (before Scarlett got her claws in him!). This isn’t hugely important on its own. I know these were fictional characters. But what is fascinating are the social implications Margaret Mitchell makes. She is trying to convey, I think, that the Wilkeses are a cut above the other gentry, the American equivalent of a British “old family.” They are supposed to be exquisitely cultured and naturally gracious. The only person in the community who is like them is, I think, Scarlett’s mother, Ellen, who was from Louisiana. Ellen ends up in this odd marriage to Scarlett’s father because her marriage to her cousin, Phillippe Robillard, with whom she was deeply in love, doesn’t go through. I think Mitchell is using cousin-love as the same plot device to convey the same thing: they were like royalty and had strong reasons for cousin marriage or were high enough up the ladder to be eccentric. And I have to say, it was effective: I knew exactly where the Wilkses and Robillards stood.
There is a lot of discussion in Gone With the Wind about whether cousins ought to marry, mostly having to do with washing out the blood and including some very humorous comparisons to horse breeding. But I actually think those conversations had more to do with Mitchell writing in the 1930’s than any real qualms people would have felt in the 1860’s. While cousin marriage wasn’t appalling in the 1930’s, I do think this general feeling may have begun to grow that it was much better to at least be second cousins. This would be supported by Heyer (in England, of course) making a point to add the “once removed” language for Cicely when she was writing just a few years before. Also, in the movie (but not in the book) Ashley goes on a long ramble about wine having been his father’s uncle Hamilton’s, who married so and so, who married so and so and later on connects it with the Wilkeses again. I remember watching that a few years ago and thinking that it was odd. This was during the war, so the only sense I could make of it was that Ashley was suffering from PTSD or very severe homesickness. But one of my sources suggests that, basically, the screenwriters needed to get it in there that Ashley and Melanie were distant cousins so that audiences wouldn’t be morally squeamish. That seems very plausible to me, given that the movie does seem to paper over the fact that Mitchell indicates they were very close cousins. She just apologizes to her generation for it in another way in the book: by having the characters’ peers discuss it reasonably so you would know that she hadn’t gotten carried away with this idea or anything. Apparently, some doctors today attribute the current bias against cousin marriage to the eugenics movement in the early Twentieth Century, which was obsessed with genetic perfection. It would make sense that Mitchell was being sensitive to that.
So I think societal disapproval of first cousins marrying began in the 1920’s and has only grown stronger with every passing decade. In fact, in my childhood in the1990’s, I remember hearing that it was okay to marry your tenth cousin, because you were, you know, basically back to Adam at that point. But I’m not sure anyone would say even that today. In my lifetime, I have only heard of, and never known personally, two couples who were first cousins, even though it is legal for first cousins to marry in Tennessee.
Okay, so what’s my historical background for having Frederick and Marie marry? First of all, I used the same plot technique Mitchell did: nothing says really fancy Southern family in the Nineteenth Century like having cousins marry. I needed you to know that the Ravenels have a certain status, and regardless of history, I knew that would convey it. But there is history to back cousin marriage up.
John and Abigail Adams were third cousins. Their grandson, John Adams II, married his first cousin in 1828. Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, married her third cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. in one of those dynastic alliances. Jefferson’s other daughter married, apparently for love, John Wayles Eppes, whose father was her cousin and whose mother was her mother’s half-sister. (In case you were keeping count, that’s probably closer than first cousins.)
John C. Calhoun married his cousin, Floride, who was, you know, before their marriage, Floride Calhoun. Andrew Jackson’s adopted son, married his first cousin (yes, by blood), and when she died married another first cousin (yes, by blood). As one does. We all know about Edgar Allan Poe. Robert E. Lee was married to his third cousin, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. I could go on and on. Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt was a Roosevelt before she married? Okay, I’ll stop.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: what about the kids??? When Charles and Sophy kiss and ride off into the sunset in The Grand Sophy, they are So Not Thinking Their Kids Could Have Six Fingers. Heyer almost seems to throw it in your face, her complete lack of concern or mention of genetic hazards. Obviously, we know a lot more today about the mutations that don’t get erased if there’s never fresh blood. But come on, they knew a lot about it when she was writing, and they had to have known a little about it throughout history. If you read biographies of some of the people I listed above, or novels like Mansfield Park written in the era in which they were set, I have to tell you that this really doesn’t seem to cross their minds. There’s a rather interesting conversation in Gone With the Wind about the fact that, if one really knew what one was doing, one could breed horses that were even closer than first cousins, if you know what I mean. So if you could do that with no harm, that may have been the only science they had to base it off of. Certainly, no one seems to have linked hemophilia with a straight-line family tree. There are even reports that Queen Victoria’s son’s hemophilia was blamed on her using morphine to ease her pain during childbirth.
And then there’s the question of whether this pre-conceived notion we have of mutations with cousins marrying is completely accurate. Did some of the above people have unhealthy children who died in childhood? Yes, they did. But so did everyone else. The above people also seemed to have had a lot of healthy children, too. A very fascinating New York Times article came out in 2002 stating that, yes, first cousins are somewhat more likely to have a child with health problems, but that “the increased risk is nowhere near as large as most people think”.
There are certain communities where the rate of autosomal recessive disorders are extremely high, such as among the Amish of Lancaster County and Britain’s Pakistani community. Without a thorough scientific knowledge, my guess is that in such communities, rates are higher because there has been a tradition of first cousin marriage for many generations, and there’s almost no chance that an allele can mask and skip a child over. This could also explain the hemophilia with which royal families throughout history have struggled: those dynastic alliances stretched back for centuries. It was unlikely that you would ever marry someone who wasn’t your cousin, or that your children would.
And, there we are. It all comes back to politics and money, doesn’t it? And sometimes it would seem, love. Hope you enjoyed! Stay tuned for the next installment of History Behind the Story in which we experience the break-down in civilities between the North and South on the brink of war.
Also, here is a link to A Proposal To Cicely: (Note: some of the editing is a bit off because it seems to have been copied from an old serial newspaper, so just ignore that.):
 Side-note: She may also have been sensitive to the common stereotype that Southerners marry their cousins. I don’t know when this stereotype started, but it certainly still persists today, since my Southern mama, when she heard I was writing this article, said, “Make sure they know it wasn’t just Southerners!”
 See Jacob son of Isaac being married to two first cousins at the same time.
Photo Credit: JSTOR Daily: https://daily.jstor.org/the-genetics-of-cousin-marriage/