Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 16601753
Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 16601857
The dedicated social historian is second cousin to the tabloid journalist.
—Sir Geoffrey Elton
Lawrence Stone’s choice of epigraph could hardly be more appropriate. His two volumes on marriage and divorce are as determined an intrusion into the privacy of the past as modern historiography can offer. Stone has already written an excellent general account of marriage and divorce in early modern England, vividly illustrated with colorful, not to say lubricious, material. Now he offers two collections of case studies of matrimonial disasters in England between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.
His justification for continuing to peer through the keyholes of early modern bedrooms is that it enables him to give the readers “a unique and privileged view into otherwise hidden areas of thought and behaviour,” and “a deeper and more intimate insight into the psychology, behaviour, and even speech of actors in the past than can be obtained from any other source.” Any self-respecting paparazzo would say the same.
Stone’s painstaking excavation of the lusts and miseries of people long dead is meant to serve a serious purpose, but he does not pretend that his exposures are a painful duty. On the contrary, he tells us frankly that they are meant to be read “for illumination and pleasure.” He derives unconcealed enjoyment from the human comedy and he manages to transmit that enjoyment to the reader.
The two collections of case studies are intended to illustrate the themes sketched out in Road to Divorce. Uncertain Unions is concerned with the workings of a marriage law whose uncertainties and ambiguities were such that, in Stone’s words, “very large numbers of perfectly respectable people in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries could never be quite sure whether they were married or not.” Broken Lives documents the legal difficulties and personal conflicts involved in bringing unsatisfactory marriages to an end. Both volumes are based on a vast amount of labor, much of it by a research assistant, in the records of the ecclesiastical courts: the Consistory Courts, which heard cases in the first instance, and the Court of Arches, which dealt with them on appeal. Another research assistant has combed the records of the Old Bailey for bigamy cases. Stone has also made extensive use of unpublished private correspondence, along with gossipy published sources, like the letters of Horace Walpole and the scandalous Town and Country Magazine (1769–1793).
The results of these researches are three dozen or so self-contained stories of couples whose marital difficulties involved themselves, their families, friends, and lovers, in painful litigation and publicity, from which in most cases only the lawyers are known to have benefited. The social spread of the people involved in Uncertain Unions is fairly broad, but Broken Lives is almost exclusively confined to the aristocracy and the mega-rich, for they were the only ones who could afford to be involved in protracted divorce litigation. This, of course, is the social class which Stone knows best. Some of his …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.