Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery, by Maureen Waller

Without equality between men and women, said JS Mill, a wife is nothing but “the personal body-servant of a despot”. Yet equality has been slow in coming, and much of this absorbing social history dwells on the abuses of “patriarchal marriage”, when wives had no legal existence and all too many husbands delighted in legalised wife-torture. In a series of lively historical vignettes, Maureen Waller examines how the Church and the State seized control of marriage, the link between property and chastity, legal battles over divorce, child custody and bigamy, as well as adultery, desertion, elopement and even wife sales (as in The Mayor of Casterbridge). “The English marriage has always been mercenary,” she concludes, especially among the upper classes, but now the English divorce courts are so biased in favour of the so-called “toxic wife” that the reputation of marriage has suffered. London was once “the national marriage market”, where the elite flocked for the season to marry off their sons and daughters. Today it’s “the divorce capital of the world”.

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