The English Marriage.

By Maureen Waller

Printed: 2009

Publisher: John Murray. London

Edition: First edition

Dimensions 17 × 24 × 4 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 17 x 24 x 4

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In the original dustsheet. Red cloth binding with red gilt title on the spine.

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‘And in her book The English Marriage, author Maureen Waller blames rising divorce rates on the fact that “the demand for emotional and sexual fulfilment from marriage has risen to unrealistic levels and there is less tolerance of boredom or a partner’s shortcomings.”‘ ― The Gloss (Eire)

In a series of lively 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 ― Guardian

The story of the English marriage is unique and eccentric. Long after the rest of Europe and neighbouring Scotland had reformed their marriage laws, England clung to the chaotic and contradictory laws of the medieval Church, making it all too easy to enter into a marriage but virtually impossible to end an unhappy one. If England was a ‘paradise for wives’ it could only have been through the feistiness of the women. Married women were placed in the same legal category as lunatics. While Englishmen prided themselves on their devotion to liberty, their wives were no freer than slaves. It was a husband’s jealously guarded right to beat his wife, as long as the stick was no bigger than his thumb. Only after 1882 could a married woman even retain her own property. But then marriage was all about property in a society which was both mercenary and violent, where a girl was virtually sold into marriage and a price was put on a wife’s chastity. With a cast of hundreds, from loyal and devoted wives in troubled times to those who featured in notorious trials for adultery, from abusive husbands whose excesses were only gradually curbed by the law to the modern phenomenon of the toxic wife, acclaimed historian Maureen Waller draws on intimate letters, diaries, court documents and advice books to trace the evolution of the English marriage. It is social history at its most revealing, astonishing and entertaining.

Review: Many today are sceptical about the role of marriage in a secular society, consider it devalued and degraded by our open and permissive culture, or think that the modern ease of divorce means people give up on relationships too easily. Many people think the sacredness of marriage has been lost somewhere in all the excess and hype of ever bigger weddings and stag-dos and the acrimony and mercenary nature of many divorces. But to a certain extent, perhaps modern marriage is actually shifting back closer to what it used to be, before the Victorian concept of the romantic, companionate marriage set unrealistic expectations and ideals.

For much of English history at least, as Maureen Waller recounts, marriage was almost always about money. It was about alliances between great families, exchanges of land, or daughters with dowries or expectations of inheritances, about workmates and helpmeets. Love had very little to do with it. Women were all but bought and sold in the marriage market, (indeed, wife-sales in which men would auction off their wives were a rare but known phenomenon) and whilst theoretically no-one could be married against his or her will, in reality most women had very little choice in the matter. The history of marriage for women has not been a happy one, and a ‘marriage of equals’ was no such thing. Let’s not forget, it was only in the last century that women obtained the right to vote; only in the last 150 years that women were recognised as having any legal existence at all outside of their marriage.

This book is less a history of the concept of marriage in English society, and more a history of wives in England in the last five centuries. These pages are a sad recounting of women passed from father to husband with little choice, women beaten and battered and abused, women murdered and imprisoned against their will, women forced to marry against their inclination, the double sexual standard whereby adultery in a man was accepted but was considered treasonous in women, men stealing their wives’ fortunes with ease, mothers denied access to their children. It’s a sad and sorry tale, with a few rare bright spots of long, happy and successful marriages to buck the prevailing trend of sexual inequality and downright abuse. Reading it, one can only thank whatever deity or impersonal universal force one believes in for the fortune of being born in the era of women’s liberation, however incomplete that revolution may still be.


Maureen Waller was educated at University College London, where she studied medieval and modern history. She received a master’s degree at Queen Mary College, London, in British and European history 1660-1714. After a brief stint at the National Portrait Gallery, she went on to work as an editor at several prestigious London publishing houses. Since then, she’s written several highly acclaimed non-fiction works.

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