The Mammoth

Original long-form nonfiction narrative writing

‘A union of hearts’: love and incest in the nineteenth century

Andrew and Maria Murray were the son and daughter of the head of the immensely powerful Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony, in what later became South Africa. Sarah Emily Duff writes about the siblings’ extremely close relationship, which occurred during a period when the nature of family relationships was being debated by scientists and theologians.

In June 1853, Maria Murray, the small, slim, intense nineteen year-old eldest daughter of the respected and powerful Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in the Cape Colony, agreed to marry twenty-six year-old minister Johannes Neethling. It was a highly eligible match. Maria was educated, well-connected, and pious. Johannes – gentle, kind, and with a growing reputation for his intelligence and simple, accessible sermons – had been marked out for future promotion. He was deeply in love with her, and Maria told her parents and family that she hoped the marriage would transform her into a better Christian.

However, shortly after accepting Johannes’s proposal, Maria wrote to her closest confidant:

To think of the closeness of the sweet bonds – which united our souls – and then remember – and then to think that I have myself calmly and deliberately consented to form another which can never be unclosed – Andrew comfort me – by telling me it was not I but Christ that did it.

This letter was not addressed to a best friend or even a lover. It was, rather, addressed to Maria’s elder brother, twenty-one year-old Andrew Murray, the chaplain of the Orange River Sovereignty, and a future Moderator of the DRC. Handsome and, like his sister, physically small – throughout his life he suffered from chronic ill-health – Andrew became one of the most important preachers and theologians of the DRC during the nineteenth century.

Andrew’s diaries and the siblings’ correspondence between September 1851 and July of the following year reveal that Andrew and Maria Murray had formed an intense and intimate bond during Maria’s extended visit to Bloemfontein, the capital of the Sovereignty, in the final months of 1851. Her decision to marry Johannes, one of her brother’s oldest friends, caused both her and Andrew deep distress. He accused her of inconstancy; she felt obliged to marry to Johannes. By August 1852, Maria and Andrew agreed that their relationship was untenable, and that Maria’s future was better served by marrying Johannes.

But during their brief time together, Maria and Andrew’s relationship transformed fundamentally from being primarily filial to something that provided both with emotional and spiritual support, but which they believed was in some way immoral.

Maria’s anxiety about losing this closeness with her brother is a recurring them in the fragments – the letters and diary entries – which chart the development of their relationship. However free they may have felt with each other – however much their closeness produced a sense of limitless possibility – they were both intensely aware of their isolation from their family, from their parents and nine siblings.

Paradoxically, this relationship which arose partly from their own, separate loneliness only served to separate them more from others. But placed within the context of mid- and late-Victorian anxieties about love and family, this sibling relationship is illustrative of a set of concerns about siblinghood, incest, and the nature of family relationships during the period.

Maria Murray

Definitions of incest were under review over the course of the nineteenth century. Up until this period, there was no legal definition of incest in Britain, and what prohibitions there were had been established by the church centuries previously. This uncertainty about the blurring of filial and romantic relationships is particularly evident in Romantic literature. Full-, half-, or adopted siblings – in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831), Byron’s earlier draft of Bride of Abydos (1813), and Laon and Cythna by Percy Shelley (1817) – form intense, usually self-destructive, relationships as a means of exploring the extremes of feeling and emotion.

Yet the relationships between brothers and sisters were also celebrated within sentimental mid- and late-nineteenth-century fiction and poetry. The cultural and social historian Leonore Davidoff identifies an ‘over-determination’ of sibling relationships within the middle classes in Europe during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As the size of middle-class families increased with the slow decline of rates of child mortality within the wealthier strata in European society, the nature of family life altered. Children’s relationships with their parents became increasingly dependent on their position within the family’s age range. Older siblings parented younger brothers and sisters, and children of similar age grouped together and formed intense bonds of love and friendship.

The Murray household in the rural centre of Graaff-Reinet in the Cape Colony overflowed with children. Andrew Murray snr had immigrated to the Cape from Scotland in 1822. A fiery, evangelical preacher, he prayed for religious revivals to sweep the DRC’s congregations, and encouraged the church’s first missionary and philanthropic activities. He married a local woman, Maria, and with her had thirteen children, eleven of whom survived childhood.

The childhood of their oldest daughter, Maria, exemplified these changes within middle-class siblinghood. She was both daughter, and mother. Because of her mother’s almost constant pregnancies, since her fourteenth birthday, she had been the family’s housekeeper, responsible for caring for babies, and educating her younger brothers and sisters. Her father’s frequent absences and absorption in his pastoral duties made her, effectively, the head of their household.

Maria did, though, spend two years at school, and was encouraged to read. Her father debated theology with her as willingly as he did with his sons. The two eldest of the Murray boys were sent to their uncle in Aberdeen in 1838 to be educated. Maria could barely remember their leaving, when John was twelve, and Andrew ten years old. The boys’ letters home – stoical, pious, and dutiful – describe little of how they experienced their separation from their parents. Upon their return to the Cape a decade later – having been ordained as ministers in the Netherlands – their younger siblings did not recognise them, and they were introduced to the babies who had been born in their absence.

Considered too young to be given his own parish, twenty year-old Andrew was sent into the dry, sparsely populated expanse of South Africa’s interior. He was appointed the DRC’s Chaplain for Britain’s newly-acquired Orange River Sovereignty – a colony about the same size as present-day Nicaragua. Alone in his house in dusty Bloemfontein, or alone on his horse as he travelled for miles between distant villages, he soon began to feel overwhelmed by his task, and wrote to his father for help, who dispatched Maria at the end of 1851.

With Andrew, Maria was, for the first time since early adolescence, responsible only for herself and her brother, and interested only in their relationship – both with each other, and with God. Their parents placed a special emphasis on the need for all their children to confess to having ‘found’ God and being ‘saved’. Both Andrew and Maria were anxious that they had not formed this close bond with God that their parents seemed to require. But together, they achieved what they believed to be a kind of spiritual intimacy. On returning to her parents’ home, she wrote to him, remembering how, ‘sitting at [his] side or on [his] knee’, they had discussed their spiritual development together. Maria wrote that she could ‘never expect to enjoy such [happiness] again on this side of heaven.’ She added:

The union of hearts so uninterrupted and perfect and pure – I hardly think I can find again – the feelings while kneeling beside you – and together pouring out our full hearts before our beloved Redeemer I have not experienced since – and do not know whether I ever can experience them again – of all that time – which will not be renewed again on earth – of all the sweet communings with you.

This closeness accounts to some extent for Andrew’s response to Maria’s announcement of her engagement the following year. He wrote, and she destroyed, several furious letters. In his diary, he gave full vent to his grief: ‘I have more than once said I did not think I could ever love a wife more than I had love a sister’. He admitted that he was ‘jealous’ and ‘thought [him]self more worthy than him [Johannes] of her love.’ He tried to justify the marriage as being part of God’s plan for him: that the marriage was punishment because his ‘heart had valued the creature too highly.’ It was a means of ‘curing’ him of his ‘inordinate affection for the creature’.

He later apologised for the letters he sent in response to her marriage, calling them ‘miserable’ and full of ‘naarheid’ (rottenness). He explained he had not, initially, approved of the marriage because, ‘as [he] fancied it, it would be prejudicial to [her] own spiritual welfare. Whether this fear were not a mere covering invented by the deep deceitfulness of [his] treacherous heart for hiding its sinful feelings – is a matter [he had] not yet settled.’

Andrew Murray

But what were these ‘sinful feelings’? The nature of the siblings’ relationship is difficult to gauge. The intensity of their attachment suggests that their relationship shifted from filial to romantic during Maria’s stay in Bloemfontein. However, the language, expression, and interpretation of love and affection altered over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Middle-class Victorian women, for example, shared beds, gave each other love tokens, and expressed their love for each other without necessarily intending for this affection to be understood as romantic. While it may be surprising to read of a sister sitting on her brother’s knee, as Maria seems to have done, it is also likely that a nineteenth-century audience would have seen this as an entirely innocent expression of intense filial affection.

Moreover, the fragmented nature of the remaining correspondence between Maria and Andrew cannot present a wholly accurate portrait of their relationship: while most of Andrew’s letters and diaries have been carefully preserved in the DRC archive, only some of his sister’s correspondence remains. Andrew’s diaries and his letters to Maria provide a fairly comprehensive account of his feelings during this period, but her few remaining letters are not nearly as effusive as his, nor do they allow as much insight into her own struggles – emotional, spiritual – at the time.

Her panicked appeal to her brother to ‘comfort’ her by telling her that ‘it was not [her] but Christ’ who made her agree to marry Johannes, implies that she understood her impending marriage to require her, reluctantly, to shift her affections from brother to future husband. But it is impossible to ascertain for certain how she understood the nature of the affection between herself and her brother.

Andrew, though, seems to have understood the relationship as being illegitimate. In a diary entry at the height of his anguish, he found comfort from the day’s Bible reading, noting: ‘By a striking (providential?) coincidence 2Sam. 11-13. came in the order for reading.’ These chapters describe two illicit relationships: David’s lust for Bathsheba which drove him to arrange the death of her husband; and the incestuous love of Amnon, son of David, for his sister Tamar. Amnon fell in love with Tamar, lured her into his chamber and then raped her. His brother, Absalom, subsequently murdered him in retribution. Andrew’s relief at reading the passage indicates that he – if not his sister – believed that the relationship was incestuous.

Andrew’s anxiety spoke to wider concerns about the relationships between brothers and sisters. Middle-class siblings were encouraged to develop close relationships. The sentimental, popular fiction of the period idealised the bond between brothers and sisters as the model for future husbands and wives. Indeed, it was not uncommon for siblings in one family to marry those in another. For instance, Charles Darwin and his elder sister married the Wedgewood siblings Emma and Josiah, as Emma and Josiah’s father and uncle had married two sisters from another family.

This overlapped with wider public debate around the British Empire about what defined incestuous relationships.

At a time when marriage between first cousins was on the increase within middle-class families in Europe – partly as a result of wider social acceptance of the practice; after all Queen Victoria had married her first cousin – scientists were beginning to wonder about the biological consequences of close consanguineal marriage. Darwin had become concerned about the effects of inbreeding on human development both as a result of his own research, and out of concern for his and his children’s ill-health. In 1868 and 1876 he published two studies on cross-fertilisation in plants and animals, and concluded ‘that interbreeding prolonged during many generations is highly injurious.’

In 1870, he proposed to John Lubbock, an anthropologist, MP, and friend, that the upcoming British census should include a question on cousin marriage to test the belief that there was a correspondence between inbreeding and physical or mental deficiency. Lubbock’s proposition to the House of Commons was rejected on the grounds that ‘the idle curiosity of philosophers was not to be satisfied’ by the census.

Darwin turned, then, to his son George, a mathematician, asking him to ascertain the statistical probability of first cousin marriages producing weak or ill children. Based on the study of 18,528 marriage announcements in the Pall Mall Gazette, genealogical information in Burke’s Peerage, a questionnaire sent to eight hundred members of the upper classes, a sample of marriages from the General Registry of Marriages at Somerset House, and statistics collected from asylums, he concluded that there was no evidence to support the view that consanguineous marriages produced children who were infertile, deaf, blind, or in any other way disabled.

Despite this evidence, anxiety about incest did not dissipate. During the 1880s, child saving organisations in Britain and the United States launched campaigns to draw attention to the sexual exploitation of girls within working-class households: by fathers and by brothers. In these terms, incest was a crime committed between close relatives, undertaken against the innocence of vulnerable young women. At the same time, governments around the British Empire were debating whether brothers- and sisters-in-law should be allowed to marry.

From the 1840s, a series of Deceased Wife’s Sister Bills were introduced to the House of Commons and parliaments in Australia, Canada, and South Africa, to legalise marriage between widowers and sisters-in-law – and specifically the sisters of deceased wives. These marriages had been barred on the grounds that Leviticus 18:18 expressly forbad union between a widower and his deceased wife’s sister. But public opinion was on the side of reform, regardless of the Church of England’s protest that allowing these marriages would sully the sibling-like bond between widower and sister-in-law.

In 1907, marriage with the deceased wife’s sister was legalized in Britain. The following year, incest – defined as sexual relationships between members of the immediate family – was criminalised. Writing about the perpetual ‘invention’ of new forms of love within societies, Theodore Zeldin comments: ‘the history of love is not a sweeping movement towards a greater freedom, but an ebb and flow, a whirlpool, and long periods of calm.’ As this example suggests, love and romantic and sexual attraction are as much the product of social change and the overlapping of scientific enquiry and public debate, as they are determined by biology.

The relationship between Andrew and Maria Murray occurred within this context of debate over the meanings of legitimate relationships within families. The intensity of their relationship ran the risk of being interpreted as incestuous. For all the succour that their relationship provided them, it could not last.

Maria’s marriage was, by all accounts, long and happy. She had twelve children, adopted several more and, under the nom de plume Lydia, became a popular and respected poet. Andrew married several years after their relationship, and became one of the most powerful men in the Cape Colony. He and his sister were never again as close as they had been in their early twenties.


Sarah Emily Duff is a writer and postdoctoral research fellow based in Cape Town, South Africa.


2 comments on “‘A union of hearts’: love and incest in the nineteenth century

  1. Deon
    September 24, 2012

    Excellent writing!

  2. Olea
    October 14, 2012

    Hello Sarah
    I found this piece fascinating. Do you know when Johnnes Neethling first met Maria? Was it when he visited Bloemfontein just prior to accompanying Andrew Murray on his 4th visit to the Transvaal? I’d really appreciate any further information you may possess on this topic as I live in Australia and am unable to visit the DRC archives in Stellenbosch.


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