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Tying the knot: Toronto historian explores the changing face of marriage.


Reading one of the appeal court decisions that opened the way for same-sex marriage in Canada, I was struck by how much the legal text was driven by history.

The 2003 judgment considered the transformation of marriage: by the changed standing of divorce; by women's new roles; by the eclipsing of the church by the state in setting most rules of marriage. Terms of marriage, once decreed by church, community;, and family patriarchs, are now shaped mostly by the wishes of marriage partners. The judges' conclusion? The 150-year-old common-law rule that marriage was "the union of one man and one woman" was ripe for judicial review.

When high courts are declaring that "marriage is not a static institution within any society," is this the perfect moment for Toronto historian Elizabeth Abbott to offer the world a thoughtful, readable history of marriage?

"There's no bad moment to write about marriage," Abbott said recently over lunch at her favourite vegetarian cafe in Toronto's Riverdale neighbourhood. "I wish I had a book like this when I was younger."

That younger Abbott was a scholar in Montreal, studying "parliamentary reporting in nineteenth-century Canada, in fact." Then things happened. She found it hard to go on writing books "no one read."

Her own marriages began and ended. And after a life-threatening car accident, she says she wanted to change her life. Abbott lived in the Caribbean. She got into journalism. Then she concluded: "Canada was my place; I was going to work here."

Returning to her Toronto birthplace in the 1990s, Abbott became dean of women at Toronto's Trinity College and launched into her "historical relationship trilogy"--first, A History of Celibacy; then A History of Mistresses. Each was widely translated, sold well around the world, and established Abbott's method, one that draws on both her historical training and her journalism apprenticeship. In 2004 she left the university In 2010 came A History of Marriage.

Today, scholarship on the history of relationships is vast. "I am able to do the work that I do because of the scholarship that there is," Abbott says. "'I know my way around it. I know where the fights are, who is doing good work, and who is not. I just work hard, and I read a huge amount."

But she no longer aspires to write the prose of scholarship. "A lot of scholarship is badly written. There used to be the idea of the muse of history, that it was an art. But the muse is not served by being as boring as possible. And academic style makes things less accurate. If everything is in passive voice, you can't see who did what." She concludes with a credo: "I am a writer who happens to have historical training."

Her subject is not just marriage's past. Half of the book explores its stormy present and uncertain future.

Not that it is short on history. Abbott evokes Catherine Paulo, shipped to New France to be a habitant's bride; the arranged marriage of young medical scholar Felix Platter in Switzerland in the 1550s; the couple in Jan van Eyck's masterpiece The Arnolfini Portrait; Reverend Theophilus Packard's fury at his wife's blossoming career as a nineteenth-century preacher; and the tribulations of the interracial Lovings of Virginia in the 1960s.

Through these lives and more--many of them Canadian--Abbott explores the endless changes and perpetual themes of marriage: family structures, domestic economy, love, sex, and children, as well as power, violence, and marital breakdown.

Then she dances through the minefields of the modern marital debate. Abbott chose not to write about her own marital history.

However, she found that many readers told her they "related to the text on the most intimate levels." When the subject is marriage and family, few people are indifferent spectators.

Abbott's conclusions about marriage's prospects are mostly upbeat. Considering the history she has covered, she values the decline in coerced unhappy marriages, the growing flexibility of marriage, and women's escape from domestic drudgery and death in childbirth.

"I am for marriages that ... satisfy, comfort, and provide care for their inhabitants," she writes, and she believes many such marriages exist today, "But I do not believe that marriage is the right way for everyone."

"Educate!" she tells me. "Sure, the girl who gets pregnant and married at seventeen is very likely to divorce. But the woman who gets an education, who forms a relationship and has children later, she is very unlikely to divorce."

Abbott says, "with the economic slowdown, men and women are unemployed, and their benefits are running out. And are we surprised to see domestic violence spiking upwards? That is the history of marriage, that it is linked to everything."

Hours after we met, Elizabeth Abbott became a grandmother. Will a history of childhood become her next book?

"No," she said firmly, "I have seven other books I have to write.

Christopher Moore comments in every issue of Canada's History. You can learn more about Abbott at
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Author:Moore, Christopher
Publication:Canada's History
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Aug 1, 2010
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