Book review – The English Marriage

Kathryn Gleadle looks at a book which dwells on the darker side of married life  

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Reviewed by: Kathryn Gleadle
Author: Maureen Waller
Publisher: John Murray
Price (RRP): £25

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 Anyone seeking a salacious trawl through the darker side of married life across the ages will certainly find it in Maureen Waller’s book, which is subtitled “tales of love, money and adultery”. Compiled from numerous case studies, the book recounts a veritable litany of abusive relationships through six centuries of English history. If the author’s intention is to assert the appalling suffering endured by generations of women at the hands of their tyrannical husbands then she has certainly succeeded. To dwell repeatedly upon the worst-case scenarios of gender relations demonstrates how painfully vulnerable wives can be in patriarchal cultures in which they lack legal protection. 

However, rehearsing ceaselessly the worst that could befall the nation’s wives provides but a one-dimensional narrative. Constructing a history of women as victims is, moreover, an approach which now reads as dated. Over the last 30 years, feminist historians have been at pains to consider the many ways in which women could take advantage of opportunities (albeit in sometimes tightly circumscribed contexts) to forge meaningful lives. 

The richly-textured accounts of historians such as Amanda Vickery have helped to elucidate how marriages could provide women with numerous opportunities for cultural engagement and social authority. Equally, married couples often strove hard to build respectful relationships, which tempered the harsh logic of the law (until the late 19th century, men had the right to forcibly imprison their spouses, for example). While Waller presents the law as uniformly oppressive to women, in fact the courts could be flexible in their treatment of the women who came before them. If, under common law, wives were unable to make contracts and their property became their husband’s on marriage, judges often chose to proceed on a common-sense basis, prepared to accept that within their communities married women were routinely treated as independent economic agents in their own right. 

The author’s agenda is rather hard to fathom in all this. Her history of victimised wifehood does not derive from a feminist perspective. In a troubling epilogue she warns readers that “In a throwaway society we ignore the wisdom and experience of our forbears at our peril”. Her point is to urge her readers of the inadvisability of divorce, noting that for previous generations “marriage was for life”. 

If we were to concur with the miserable scenarios of domestic violence and sexual cruelty she recounts during the course of the book, it would seem hard to accept that there are helpful lessons for us to learn here. The reader is further lectured on the immorality of some modern wives who she accuses of “treating marriage as a cash cow”. Waller accepts at face value tabloid stereotypes of “toxic wives” who apparently pursue iniquitous divorce settlements. “Fortunately,” she assures us, “the toxic wife is in the minority”. Ultimately, here as in the rest of her analysis, the author’s case is built on extreme cases. Omitting the experiences of those whose lives are conducted more moderately, now and in the past, Waller has missed the opportunity to present a more convincing picture of the complicated realities of married life.  

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Dr Kathryn Gleadle is tutorial fellow in modern history, University of Oxford