BOOK REVIEW / 300 years of nuclear fission: 'Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 1660-1857' - Lawrence Stone: OUP, 16.95

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ONE OF the epigraphs to these 12 fascinating tales of marital breakdown over three centuries is G R Elton's remark that 'the dedicated social historian is second cousin to the tabloid journalist'. Brother, more like. The chapter titles here read like Times Law Reports - Boteler v Boteler, Grafton v Grafton - but the sub-headings cry out for headline treatment: 'Multiple Adultery and Bigamy', 'Cruelty, Adultery and Murder', 'The Impotent Duke and the Adulterous Duchess', 'The Lady and the Groom'. Lawrence Stone's stories are not selected for sensation, however, but to illustrate our crablike crawl towards the Divorce Act of 1857: Broken Lives, like its forerunner, Uncertain Unions, provides striking case studies to underpin his broader technical and theoretical account in Road to Divorce (1990).

Post-Reformation England had the most benighted marriage laws in Europe, losing out on Catholic reforms while gaining none of the new legislation of other Protestant countries. Most couples sidestepped the courts with private deeds of separation, such as divorce by mutual consent without the possibility of remarriage (hence a blind eye would be turned to bigamy). If driven to law, they could battle for years, playing a mad game of snakes and ladders: ecclesiastical courts gave judicial separation for cruelty or adultery; Chancery dealt with property and trusts; criminal courts heard accusations of bigamy or sodomy; civil courts dealt with 'criminal conversation', where the husband sued a wife's lover for vast damages for trespassing on his 'property', the final step to a rare private bill for parliamentary divorce, leaving both partners free at last.

As the world knows, lawyers eat cash. Stone only glances at the poor: judicial separations, let alone divorce, were perks of the hugely rich. Even so, as cases dragged on, estates were lost, great houses left shuttered and empty. Retainers lost their jobs, villagers and tradesman their livelihoods. In one case local feelings ran so high that the townsfolk turned out in the wife's support, swilling free beer and burning effigies, in a domestic parody of a political election. Husbands paid the legal costs, but guilty wives lost all for love - name, fortune, home and children. Not surprisingly, desperation encouraged perjury, fake evidence, bribery and intimidation; pimps and prostitutes made a profit on the side; servants spied ruthlessly, taking notes on their employers (revealing an unexpectedly high literacy level).

Stone's astonishing detail is due to the archaic legal procedure whereby ecclesiastical courts interrogated witnesses privately, keeping almost verbatim records: in one case the evidence runs to 5,000 pages. As a result, 'we can eavesdrop on the conversation of men and women of all sorts and conditions', from housemaid and gamekeeper to priest and prime minister, and see their lives in unparalleled intricacy and intimacy. The stories make sad, compulsive reading. The centuries disappear at the thought of Anne Boteler in the 1660s, battered, humiliated, her baby threatened, her children forced to beat and spit on her. And the violence rolls on, from hard-drinking, sexy Mary Dinely, shackled in a garret in 1730, to George Westmeath lunging at his wife in a crowded French inn in 1815: the victory at Waterloo and ebullient British soldiers mean nothing beside their private misery.

The loss, loneliness and rage are timeless and poignant. The Duchess of Beaufort, fighting off accusations of adultery by claiming her marriage is null due to the Duke's impotence, personally cross-examines her maids about stains on the sheets. In stung retaliation, the Duke opts for the medieval test of virility, masturbating in the presence of physicians, surgeons and judge. 'All very matron-like persons,' writes Horace Walpole, 'His Grace's -- is in everybody's mouth.' Pride is the spur, but property is the killer - literally, for Samuel Dinely, who has his older brother strangled, and nearly for George Westmeath, defaulting on maintenance, who suggests his tenants shoot the bailiffs - the 'tactics of a gangster rather than of a nobleman,' remarks Stone.

Like a judge peering over his spectacles, Stone does often pronounce on his cases, as in the comment that English duchesses in the 1730s and 1740s were particularly tempted to take lovers and particularly likely to be disgraced if they did: 'This was the misfortune of Frances, Duchess of Beaufort, although it cannot be denied that she brought her troubles on herself by her recklessness and arrogant folly.' Period language spills into his prose and deep familiarity with the sources provides welcome comedy, like his weariness at high-born women who leave incriminating evidence because they're too grand to make the bed, or the resigned description of a couple spotted in a field 'in the usual 18th-century position with Mary on her back with her petticoats up, and Sir Robert on top of her with his breeches down'.

Broken Lives is breezy about cultural shifts - the move from 'honour-and-shame' to a commercial ethos; the impact of Rousseau, 'trashy novels' and Romantic love; the proposition that feminism may 'put many marriages under exceptional strain' - but the marvellously rich data and meticulous yet compassionate story-telling make the past startlingly present. The quote from John Aubrey, comparing historian and magician, applies well to this superb social history, which 'makes those walk and appear that have been in their graves many hundreds of years; and represents as it were to the eye the places, customs, and fashions that were of the old time'.