Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The English Marriage

The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery by Maureen Waller is interesting reading. It traces the history of marriage in England from Medieval times to the 1960s. Long after Europe reformed ins marriage and divorce laws England's laws were still heavily dependent on the rules of Medieval theology. The status of married women was little better than slaves or lunatics. All their property, until the late 19th century, belonged to their husband and they had no status in law as individuals.

It was very difficult for anyone to obtain a divorce. The poor didn't bother and simply walked away from the marriages and probably committed bigamy at a later date. The rich - because land and money were involved - resorted to law. A woman could be divorced for a single act of adultery. But if she wanted a divorce herself she had to prove cruelty as well as adultery.

When husbands were allowed to beat their wives, starve them and keep them shut up it was virtually impossible for a wife to prove cruelty. There was no doubt who was in charge until the 19th century when women started fighting back and several pieces of legislation improved their lot in life. Paradoxically widows had the best of it as they had virtually the same legal powers as men.

It is always difficult to look back on history and try and judge the events of the time through the eyes of the time. But comparing marriage and divorce in England with the same laws in other countries it is easy to see the English legal treatment of women was draconian even by the views of the times. Financial arrangements before marriage did seek to secure the income of wives if they were widowed in the main but that was all. There was no way out of an impossible marriage if you were a woman.

It was not until 1839 that women could expect to keep custody of children under the age of 7 after divorce - and then only if they successfully petitioned the Lord Chancellor and could prove they were of good character. Husbands would use access to the children as a bargaining counter in divorce or separation negotiations as access was wholly decided by the man and not the courts. Maybe we have gone too far in the other direction now.

Anyone who thinks women have never been oppressed and it's all a feminist con needs to read this book as the individual stories were taken from court records and the correspondence of the individuals concerned and at times show a horrific picture of the treatment of women by the law.

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