Vengeful Susan

Linda Colley

  • Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660-1753 by Lawrence Stone
    Oxford, 295 pp, £16.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 820253 9
  • Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 1660-1857 by Lawrence Stone
    Oxford, 373 pp, £16.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 820254 7

In 1990, Lawrence Stone published a book called Road to Divorce. Bold, original, pungent and wide-ranging, it was at one level an attempt to convey the vagaries and varieties of matrimony in England from Tudor times to the Marriage Act of 1753, and the extreme difficulty and distress involved in legally separating from a spouse before the passage of the Divorce Act in 1857. At a deeper level however, and characteristically, Stone’s purpose was far more ambitious.

Ever since his huge, combative and in every sense seminal volume, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977), Stone has been scornful of those historians of the family who put their trust primarily in demography. This is partly for the obvious reason that number-crunching illuminates the incidence and success rate of past human procreation rather than what it meant for those involved. But Stone also rejects the idea that the most significant changes over time are to be found in matters such as the age of men and women at marriage or the size of households, or that these are all that historians can confidently measure. He does not accept that sexual love, or the relations between husband and wife and parent and child, are human constants outside history, or too private to be amenable to rigorous investigation. Instead, he has always insisted that people’s experience of and attitudes to childhood, love, sex, marriage and parenthood have gone through marked and ascertainable changes, particularly in the two centuries after the English civil wars.

The same applies to marital disharmony, adultery and divorce. Silent frustration, angry words, snatched and messy embraces, lust, loneliness and remorse are not timeless or private experiences only. Rather, Stone has argued, studying them ‘offers a privileged, indeed almost unique insight’ into how individuals have interacted with ‘the public spheres of morality, religion and the law’. But how to study them exactly?

Stone’s gold-mine, which he has plundered more intensively and imaginatively than any other scholar, are the records of England’s ecclesiastical courts. In particular, he has drawn on the still virtually intact records of the Court of Arches, which dealt with appeals against broken marriages and for marital separations from Southern England and Wales. It was largely these documents which allowed him in Road to Divorce to construct a rigorous statistical framework around the details of a myriad personal agonies from the past. He showed, for example, that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, even minor tradesmen and some of the very poor could afford to bring their marital disputes to the Court of Arches, but that access to it – as to so much else in England – became far more confined to the amply propertied as the 1700s progressed.

Yet, for most readers of Road to Divorce, it was not these scholarly discoveries that leaped out of the text. Rather it was the magically preserved voices of long-dead individuals caught fast in moments of extreme stress. Officials in ecclesiastical courts interrogated those who came before them in private and wrote down what they said in extenso. Bitter accusations, angry rebuttals, the testimonies of successive witnesses, whether servants or lords, bribed or otherwise, were all carefully recorded. And it is these detailed and often conflicting accounts of ragged and stormy relationships which Stone has now used to flesh out his earlier overall thesis. Uncertain Unions supplies 24 case-studies of individuals insisting on or disputing the validity of a marriage. The darker and more gripping Broken Lives opens up 12 stories of marriages disintegrating under pressure.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in