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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.