Abstract

This article critically examines the figure of the “mother-sister” in Victorian popular fiction. Sisters whose main function in the household comprises mothering their siblings, combines several narrative possibilities in nineteenth-century fiction, while constructively complicating the representation of domestic work. Whereas canonical fiction depicts sisters taking care of motherless siblings more often than their general absence from critical discussion might suggest, for several Victorian women writers, the mother-sister’s experience offers an opportunity to detail everyday domestic labor, to validate homemaking without sentimentalizing it, and to express frustration without rejecting domestic ideals. After a general discussion of the significance of this hitherto neglected figure in Victorian culture, this article juxtaposes the mother-sister’s representation in novels by otherwise markedly different popular authors of the time: the religious writer Charlotte Yonge and Mrs. Henry Wood, one of the most successful sensation novelists of the time. Their contrasting portrayal of reluctant, resentful, and resented mother-sisters offers a different angle on expected depictions of capable homemaking as a sign of value in Victorian fiction.

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