BOOK REVIEW / The truth behind Moll Flanders: Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660-1753 - Lawrence Stone: Oxford, pounds 25

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A HISTORICAL paparazzo with a zoom lens, Lawrence Stone trains his eye on the records of Lambeth Palace and suddenly the blur of the past is in bright focus. Of course, it's not as easy as that. He has spent nine years reading, selecting and working with other scholars. But he delivers the pictures all right. Here are topless frolics, lies and eavesdropping, pregnancies and false promises, angry parents, pretty daughters, feeble sons, and much marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.

This is the first of the two volumes of case-histories promised as companions to his magnificent Road to Divorce. It covers the years 1660 to 1753, a period of social and moral confusion, which saw the ending of the Puritan regime, the restoration of the Stuarts and their departure. At this time there was a rift between the church's view of what constituted marriage and the law's. To the church, a marriage contract was valid if two people made a spoken vow before witnesses and consummation followed. But common law, which dealt with property as well as sexual morals, did not accept this: it required a written record.

The result was much misery. Ambitious mothers who managed to trap their daughters' well-born admirers into ceremonies found they were of dubious value. Sons who married secretly for fear of their parents' anger might later bribe the priest to deny the validity of what they had done.

There were suits for bigamy; women who believed they had married found themselves abandoned with children and no resources. Fortune-hunters of both sexes set blackly farcical traps for their victims. As Professor Stone points out, the stories told by Defoe in Moll Flanders all have their parallels in real life.

Uncertain Unions is a collection of such stories. It covers all social classes. Henry Elmes, a widower lodging in Drury Lane, runs into trouble when he tries to marry a servant girl, Anne Ordway, in 1708, because an earlier girlfriend, Mary Wise, insists on joining the wedding party and then stops the proceedings:

'Mary Wise: 'Sir, there is no occasion for a wedding, for he is my husband before God, though not before man.'

Minister: 'Sweetheart, have you had any child by this man?'

Mary Wise: 'Yes, sir, two.'

Henry Elmes: 'You lie, you bitch, it was none of mine. Damn you for a bitch, you had one by a seaman, and got out of your bed in your shift when you had lain in but a week, and run after me to make me father of your child . . .' '

Elmes manages to marry Anne later, and then inherits some money: not much, but enough to make Mary return to the attack and persuade a court she has a prior claim to him. Anne counter-attacks by

going on a spending spree, buying lots of clothes and telling the shopkeeper to ask Elmes to settle the bill: for although the law gave a woman's property to her husband, he was responsible for her debts. The story peters out in confusion, but for a few pages it runs like a brilliant reel of documentary film.

Another takes us into the great house of Kiveton Park in Yorkshire, where a 30-year-old duke's daughter, Lady Bridget Osborne, lives among gossiping women. Against all the odds, she manages to marry the household chaplain, a young man from Wales called Williams, decent and educated, but not her social equal. When, after a hurried consummation, the marriage is discovered, the Duchess screams and sobs with rage, beats both spouses and tears off Williams's wig. The priest who performed the marriage is induced to deny it; male members of the family are summoned from London, arriving at breakneck speed; Lady Bridget is dragged from Williams, who is at one point perched on a wheelbarrow to hold her hand through a window. He behaves throughout with dignity. Most of the house servants are against him, but the lower ones - houseman and footboy - sympathise with true love and carry letters for the couple. She is kept locked up in London to wear down her spirit, but her account gradually wins the sympathy of the barrister appointed by the family. It's better than Clarissa.

In fact there's not a dull story in the book. Each one illustrates a point that interests Stone as a historian, but his eye for the ridiculous or touching detail ensures that they can be read as the purest of entertainment - if pure entertainment is an appropriate description for such a record of scandals, betrayals and bullying.