Sep 12 2011 2:30pm

Squick or Squee? Kissing Cousins

Shades of Twilight by Linda HowardIn Linda Howard’s Shades of Twilight, Webb Tallant marries not one but two of his second cousins (not at the same time). This book, published in 1996, takes place in present-day (or 1996-day) Alabama and no one even blinks when Webb marries first Jessie and then Roanna. And you know what? I didn’t blink either.

Marriage between cousins has long been a topic of discussion in this country, and cousin Romance novels have been few and far between. But that’s just us. First cousin marriage is legal in only 20 U.S States (yes, Alabama is one of them), but second cousin marriage is legal everywhere. So what’s the big deal? Moreover, cousin marriage is perfectly legal in that other English-speaking country we love to read about: England.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Well, none of this cousin marriage stuff bothers me, and that might be because, when I began reading romance, I was reading in the English Regency and I was, particularly reading Jane Austen. Of Jane Austen’s six heroines (or seven if you count two for Sense and Sensibility), two are courted by cousins (Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet) and one marries her first cousin (Fanny Price).

Nor does Georgette Heyer scruple to throw in the occasional cousin romance. The Grand Sophy presents us with the irrepressible Sophia Stanton-Lacy and her stick-in-the-mud first cousin, Charles Rivenhall. The match is inevitable, although Heyer leads us into it through an intricate dance of manipulation and intrigue and ends with a chapter worthy of the Marx brothers and the perfect proposal:

“Devil!” said Mr. Rivenhall, and caught her into so crushing an embrace that she protested, and Tina danced around them, barking excitedly. “Quiet!” commanded Mr. Rivenhall. He took Sophy’s throat between his hands, pushing up her chin. “Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that your are?”

“Yes, but mind, it is only to save my neck from being wrung!” Sophy replied.

I mean, with a proposal like that, who cares what their degree of consanguinity is?

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig

Several Regency-set Romances, following the lead of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, feature romances between cousins with varying degrees of kinship. As recently as 2009, Lauren Willig gave us quite distant cousins, Charlotte and Robert in The Temptation of the Night Jasmine. The two reunite with this delicious scene:

“Charlotte?” he asked again, with a bemused smile. “It is Cousin Charlotte, isn’t it?”

“Cousin” wasn’t’ quite the endearment she had been hoping for.

“Cousin?” Charlotte echoed. Although her grandmother claimed kinship with any number of peers and minor princes, the Dovedale family tree had run thin for successive generations. There were very few with any right to call her by that name. “Cousin Robert?”

Do you have a problem with this? No? Neither do I.

In my search for books about romance between cousins, however, I did come up with one that sort of skeeved me out. This was a Harlequin Presents from 1997 by Robyn Donald called Tiger, Tiger. The ick factor in this book really has very little to do with how close these cousins were on the family tree. It turns out that their common ancestor was sometime in the 19th century. Not a big deal. The ick factor was not even due to the black moment when they thought they might be half brother and sister (although that was pretty icky). No, it revolved around the fact that they apparently looked like twins and fell in love with each other at first sight. Narcissus anyone? My problem with this one did not really have anything to do with cousinhood. Really, it didn’t.

So… cousins in love, kissing cousins, cousin marriage. It doesn’t really bother me. Is this because of my roots in 18th century England? Or is it because… well… it’s really not that big a deal?

How do you feel about this? Is cousin marriage only okay in the distant past or are you rooting for Webb and Roanna to live happily ever after?


Myretta is the co-founder and current manager of The Republic of Pemberley, a pretty big Jane Austen web site. She is also a writer of Historical Romance. You can find her at her website, and on Twitter @Myretta

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Barbara W
1. Barbara W
Oh, Shades of Twilight! One of my favorite Howards and one that sort of squicks me. I can get past the cousin thing in any kind of historical, they're historicals. But this was a contemporary and as much as Webb and Lucinda kept going on about how he and Ro weren't cousins, they sort of were, enough that it bugged me if I thought about it.

So when I get to those parts of the book, I do a mental, " lalalalala, I don't hear you," in my head. I just love that book.
Heather Waters
2. hnwaters
@Barbara W -- It's one of my favorite Linda Howards too, which I've always thought was weird. I mean, I'm always incredibly grossed about by the stuff with Jessie and her dad, but not so much by Webb/Ro. *shrug* Maybe it's because, as Myretta says, we're so used to it in historicals.
Louise Partain
3. Louise321
@Barbara W said
" So when I get to those parts of the book, I do a mental, " lalalalala, I don't hear you," in my head."

LOL! I love that!

Seriously, I used to hold an argument in my head when I read the novels mentioned and others because I desparately wanted love to win out but I have so many first cousins that the ick factor of even considering a cousin as a love interest was multiplied by a bunch. Nowadays I barely bat an eyelash. I have grown accustomed to that "lalalalala" in my head and don't even hear it drowning out the ick.
Myretta Robens
4. Myretta
@hnwaters Oh yeah. Jessie and her dad (actually anyone and Jessie's dad) is definitely squick material.
Darlene Marshall
5. DarleneMarshall
I think it can depend on one's frame of reference. In some cultures first cousins marrying was considered a good thing, because it kept family wealth and property consolidated. It doesn't bother me when I read it in a romance.

I've also lived in the Deep South most of my life, where cousin marriage (no jokes, please) is more common than in many other locales.
Sandi Logsted
6. sandlog
This is my favorite Linda Howard book. Like most of the responders the Ro/Webb relationship never ick-ed my out like the one between Jessie and that vile sperm donor, Neeley. My reason for really loving this book, is the quiet strength and devotion of Roanna, to both her family and Webb. Among my favorite parts are Webb returning to the family and asking wtf happened to Roanna, and the smile counting that he and Lucinda start.
Barbara W
7. GH
I might be the first person commenting from the UK. That seems to be relevant because as far as I know it is not considered strange here for cousins to marry. That is probably clear from the books you cite as examples, the Austens and the Heyers - it doesn't get mentioned as a consideration because it wasn't one. (Of course Heyer was writing in the 20th century and, since she wasn't making plot points with the relationship, her books reflect the 20th century attitude rather than an historical one. And can I just mention Cousin Kate?)

I didn't even realise it was a potential issue in the US until I saw some comments on The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart, and became aware that the book was changed in the US version so that the hero and heroine were second cousins rather than first cousins. Quite apart from the fact that this demonstrates the very real difference between the US and the UK on the question of first cousins, that change struck me as odd because one of the issues in the book is that the heroine does hesitate about marrying her first cousin, but only because their fathers were twins and she and the hero were brought up very closely. I couldn't see how that element of the book would work at all if they were only second cousins. But I had no idea until reading this post that marriage between first cousins is actually illegal in parts of the US!

So no, kissing cousins doesn't bother me at all. I can just about comprehend qualms over first cousin relationships, but cannot begin to understand disquiet over that of second cousins.
Donna Watson
8. Sookie65
As GH rightly points out, here in the UK it is legal to marry your cousins and having read Austen all my life didn't realise it was such a big "ick" in the USA! I became aware of the ick factor a couple of months ago as there is a discussion going on about this very thing on Goodreads (Mansfield Park). Still, having said that, I don't think I could ever have married any of my cousins as we were more like siblings!
Louise Partain
9. Louise321
@GH -- Really? The Gabriel Hounds was changed just because we have to "lalalalala" to accept first cousins in love? Love the book, still have it but it bothers me that an author would have to change her writing and a major point about her characters in order to eliminate my "ick" issue.
Aspasia Bissas
10. AspasiaBissas
I've got to say as someone who grew up close to my cousins, as well as being raised in a culture (Greek) where romance between relatives of any degree is strictly taboo, all I can say is ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. I feel so prim all of a sudden!
Alie V
11. ophelial
Also don't forget it was pretty prevalent to marry siblings in ancient Egypt too. That squicks me out :S I have a half-brother and just thought makes me slightly nauseous... Needless to say, V.C. Andrews stories bothered me a great deal.

However, cousins not so much. Second cousins are better than first in my mind, but my love for Jane Austen overshadows any gross factor I have with Mansfield Park, etc.
The DaringLibrarian
12. gwynethjones
I read The Grand Sophy as a teen during my Anglophile "Regency" phase where I felt good friends with Beau Brummel & the Four in Hand club & recently re-read it thanks to a Kindle sweet price - only now as a grown up I even *noticed* that they were first cousins! I found this site because I had to Google to see if anyone else even noticed it & had a problem with the relation.

Funny, whilst reading it again...I couldn't remember if Sophy & Charles got together at the end (but they had to, right!?) but couldn't figure out how they were going to so closely related - was Sophy adopted? NOPE. I'm not icked out so much as it just doesn't seem possible. But it's interesting!

Now I am tempted to download The Temptation of the Night Jasmine but the Kindle price is $12.99 and the hardcover is only $10.38! WTH? Whilst the squirmy Tiger, Tiger is only $3.98 (guilty pleasure!)
Thanks for this review & opening up this discussion!
~Gwyneth Jones
The Daring Librarian
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