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The English Marriage
A spirited gallop through several hundred years of love, money and adultery.
The English Marriage | by Maureen Waller | John Murray, London |2010 | £25 | 420 pagesThis book is a spirited gallop through several hundred years of wedlock. Beginning with the Norman Conquest, when new laws made married women the property of their husbands and framed the concept of primogeniture (inheritance by the oldest son), Waller illustrates how land, money and inheritance dominated the contract, at least among the wealthy and the aristocracy; as Doctor Johnson remarked several centuries later: “Chastity in women is all-important, because the whole of property is involved in it.” Chastity in husbands, it may be inferred, was not so important.
Both before and after the Reformation, the purpose of marriage was threefold: procreation, a remedy against fornication and mutual help. Both parties had to give their free consent to it, but the author cites many instances where excessive pressure was brought to bear upon a daughter into consenting to a marriage that would be financially advantageous to her family. Compatibility between spouses was not considered; it was certainly preferable - but not essential.
The author subtitles her account, “Tales of Love, Money and Adultery”. She goes into great detail over notorious legal disputes among the landed classes where adultery, real or alleged, and tussles over dowries seem the dominant characteristics of the English marriage in past centuries. Wearied by such a mercenary feature, the reader might ask, “Were no couples ever in love or happily married?” The answer is obviously “Yes” – but we rarely hear of them as they did not make legal news or changes in the statute books. There are few instances of the survival of family letters that might throw light on domestic relationships, although Waller does discuss the Pastons of medieval Norfolk, whose family papers have been preserved and in the period of the Civil War she describes the Verney family of Buckinghamshire, again from a similar source. The former were prosperous farmers and the latter minor gentry; in both cases the marriages reflect a successful and enduring partnership concerned with property and the children’s inheritance.
She also goes into some detail about the marriage of Samuel Pepys and his wife, as gleaned from his Diaries in the post-Civil War period. His infidelities, followed by his wife’s reproaches and his remorse, make it seem a very modern relationship – though without the modern solution: easy divorce.
Before the modern era, marriages that flourished were founded on companionship and mutual interests; couples, like the Pepys’s, “knew the relationship had to work”. Divorce, except for the very rich and then only with great difficulty through an act of Parliament, was unheard-of; although the Church allowed for legal separation, though not re-marriage, this was also rare. Among the poor, the solution to an unhappy marriage was desertion or, in isolated cases, wife-sale (described by Thomas Hardy in The Mayor of Casterbridge.)
Marriages were indissoluble, but as the mortality rate was also very high second (and sometimes third) marriages were common. The Divorce Act of 1857, which finally made divorce available to ordinary people, also coincided with a decline in mortality; marriages lasted longer and there began to be a higher emotional expectancy of them. Ironically, today in the UK the average marriage lasts 11 years – little different from the past where death, rather than divorce, would intervene.
The new Divorce Act, which came about through the exceptionally cruel treatment by a certain George Norton of his wife, Caroline, and their sons, brought to light many harrowing instances of neglect or abuse of women. In a chilling aside, Waller informs us that “from the latter part of the seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century... there was a thriving business in private madhouses where men could lock up their wives, no questions asked.” This, the sensational theme of Wilkie Collins’ novel, The Woman in White, would have been familiar to Victorian readers. Undoubtedly, until the mid-nineteenth century marriage laws upheld the rights of husbands, not their wives and were unfairly weighted against the latter. For instance, if a husband killed his wife, it was a mere felony; if a woman killed her husband it was high treason.
Change came slowly. The First Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 allowed married women for the first time to retain their earnings or property acquired after marriage; the Second Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 allowed women to keep their own property at the time of the marriage. This largely brought to an end the unscrupulous behaviour of fortune-hunters.
In her epilogue, Waller briefly alludes to modern, post-war society in which we witness an avalanche of broken marriages and frequent divorce. Married couples will soon be in the minority and there is no longer a stigma against children born outside marriage. The author does not try to moralise although she wishes the Government gave marriage more support and that more couples would put forbearance, consideration and unselfishness – as she says, the “eternal verities” in any happy marriage - before self-interest and self-gratification. I think her survey, interesting though it is, would have been better balanced by the inclusion of historical examples of marriages that genuinely reflected relational harmony as well as mutual business or property interests. The marriage of Sir Thomas and Dame Alice More in the sixteenth century comes to mind, as does that of William and Catherine Gladstone in the nineteenth. Jane Austen’s novels, reflecting the world she knew, show many examples of couples with mutual affection and respect. From this book you might conclude, inaccurately, that the English marriage has mainly been at best a brisk business arrangement and at worst, a mutual hell.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.
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