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Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England, 1660-1753.

One of the issues raised by Lawrence Stone's milestone work, The Family, Sex an Marriage in England, 1500-1815, was the significance of Lord Hardwicke's Act in 1753, which banned the marriage of minors without parental consent, and eliminated those irregular marital unions which traditionally had been upheld b the canon, if not always by the civil, law. The Act is a problematic one, since it contradicts Stone's overall interpretation of weakening patriarchal controls in the eighteenth century. Since 1977, Stone's scholarly agenda has been dominated by his efforts to unpack English marriage law and custom. The latest product of that project is Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660-1753, a volume of case studies designed as a companion to The Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987, which provided the structure and analytic framework within which these case studies are to be understood. Uncertain Unions, then, illustrates th uncertain state of British matrimony prior to the passage of the 1753 Act. A lengthy introduction provides background material for those unfamiliar with Roa to Divorce.

While superficially the pre-1753 legal system appears dysfunctional, these case show how it served the needs of the lay public as well as members of the legal and clerical professions. The clandestine marriage system, coupled with the legal principle of coverture, meant that women married to escape their creditors, while men married to gain possession of women's property, possibly escaping their own creditors as well. Given the double standard of sexual conduct, contract and clandestine marriage enabled women to gratify their lusts without sacrificing respectability and without the inconvenience of parental permission. Men as well as women used these casual marriage forms as a way of gaining sexual experience without the need for a lifetime commitment. Both sexe were enabled to take advantage of an opportunity, while hedging their bets should someone better come along. Clandestine marriage, then, allowed for a "fudge factor" otherwise impossible under a legal code which had no provision for divorce. Crazy and chaotic though pre-1753 marital law was, it in some odd sort of way worked, reminding this reader as much of the unreformed House of Commons as anything else. And indeed, the 1753 Act may have as much to do with the growth and rationalization of the nation-state's legal code as with changin familial emotion. It was, perhaps, an attempt to wipe out local customs and replace them with uniform national standards. Consequently, it may be as much a precursor of 1832 and 1834 as of 1857.

Stone's other agenda is to display the case study method. Many readers will share his delight in the lurid stories he tells with such evident relish. What we have here is neither a monograph nor edited documents, but something more in the nature of legal commentaries. The technique makes this rich material more accessible to more people than it would otherwise be. On the other hand, by following the original material as closely as Stone does, he retains the flaws as well as the flavor. Legal principles are frequently hard to trace as cases ramble into tangential minutiae not germane to the case. Many readers would hav benefitted from abstracts or summaries to help them follow the stories or the principles at issue. Moreover, Stone was understandably unable to restrain himself from commenting on these eighteenth-century slices of life. He attributes motives to characters or describes them as "fools" or "sex-starved": judgments which invariably betray his posture as a late twentieth-century male without providing any real analysis.

If the merit of case studies is to give readers a "feel" for the period, then Uncertain Unions is a success. Rarely has the eighteenth century seemed cruder, more heartless, venal, or self-indulgent. But social historians who want more will find inadequate the analytic fit between this volume and Road to Divorce which covered a much larger time period. Moreover, some very basic questions need to be answered. Are these twenty-four the only cases where complete record remain? If not, how were these selected? Why does Stone include under the rubri of "valid" clandestine marriage unions whose validity was not upheld by the courts? What proportion of all marriages were clandestine, and of these, how many wound up in court? That is, the question of typicality needs to be raised and addressed. So too, power. Although Stone doesn't assess the material he presents, it appeared to this reader that there was a method to the apparent legal madness of the 18th century: males benefitted more than females, the rich more than the poor, the well-born more than the meanly-born. The question of ho and why Lord Hardwicke's Act was passed, who suffered, and who benefitted, is thus an important one, and it remains unanswered. So, too, the question with which we began. How do we reconcile the greater degree of parental and governmental control over marriage with the rise of affective individualism?

An army of historians is likely to descend on this material, rich and ripe for analysis as it is, especially on issues of gender and class. Douglas Hay's theories on the social construction of law seem peculiarly applicable. One woul also like to urge historians not to overlook the ecclesiastical issues raised herein. The role of the Church of England is by no means the least disreputable part of the stories told in these cases.

Those who presently bemoan a "decline in family values" have much' to learn fro these eyewitness accounts of what the "good old days" were really like: unrestrained sexual, legal, ecclesiastical and financial chicanery. The TV version, "Tom Jones goes to Night Court" would in fact tell a story too tawdry for our tender modern airwaves.

Judith Lewis University of Oklahoma
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Lewis, Judith
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
Words:948
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