BOOK REVIEW / Bundling and tumbling in the marriage jungle: 'Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660-1753' - Lawrence Stone: Oxford, 25 pounds

'FEW HISTORICAL topics are harder to handle with clarity, sensitivity and accuracy than shifts in the sensibilities, mental structures, or moral codes which govern human behaviour,' wrote a chastened Lawrence Stone in The Road to Divorce, the first part of his historical trilogy on the breakdown of marriage in England between 1530 and 1987.

In this second volume, Uncertain Unions, he puts flesh on the bones of his historical analysis by providing case studies of the questionable courtships - over-informal contracts, clandestine marriages and bigamous proceedings - that took place between the 1660 Restoration and the Marriage Act of 1753.

Although the time-span of the volume is disappointingly brief - I would like to have read about the odd Tudor concubine or Victorian fortune-hunter - the book is immensely readable. Indeed, it was hard work keeping my hands on it during a wet weekend in Wales, where it was voted better value than either Jilly Cooper's Polo or Tom Sharpe's Wilt. It exerts the same fascination as 'Edgar Lustgarten Presents'. Incidentally, it is not necessary to have read The Road to Divorce to enjoy this sequel; in fact it might almost be more illuminating to read it afterwards, with real men and women rather than dubious 'shifts in sensibilities' in mind.

Stone's sources are the largely untapped archives of the ecclesiastical courts, principally the Process Books from the appeal court known as the Court of Arches. They are remarkably full records. All the evidence, every accusation, every answer, every deposition of every witness and every interrogatory was carefully noted.

Stone makes the tales arresting and lively by translating indirect into direct speech. He also displays an Austen-like flair for scene-setting and a sharp sense of the telling detail: 'Mary Cudworth was the daughter of the well-to-do Rector of Kinwarton in Warwickshire. In 1680-2 she lived much as she pleased. . .'

Jack Lingard 'signalled to the girls that he was awake by knocking on a chair with his snuffbox'. Lady Bridget 'had taken refuge in the bake-house, from which she sent word by messenger for Williams to join her'.

Stone admits the voyeuristic aspect of this kind of history, but argues that it is justified in the light it sheds 'both on the changeless qualities of human nature and on the very different types of values, behaviour, and conditions of life prevailing'.

Certainly, these brief peep-shows of long-gone lives are enthralling: the extraordinary freedom for 'bundling' and 'tumbling' allowed to unmarried girls (once thought unique to Wales, Scotland and Scandinavia, but now revealed as equally typical of England); the vivid descriptions of action ('he offering some rudeness and indecencies, I thereupon threw a dish of chocolate in his face and on his clothes'); the frank expression of relations between the sexes; and above all the genuinely moving dilemmas of both men and women as they struggled between passion and advantage, love and common sense.

The drawback of the cases is of course that 'they register only stories of the rare marriages that failed, not the vast majority which somehow survived, or at least stayed out of court'. More seriously, perhaps, the cases that were brought to court tend to involve money - jumped-up whipper-snappers sneaking off with heiresses, a dramatic doping of a wealthy widow, a mother and daughter plotting to trap a minor baronet. Nor can we ever be sure that we are hearing the truth. It is quite obvious that many witnesses were bribed, and that interested parties had no intention of admitting more than suited them. But the lies themselves are telling.

History as mess is the prevailing message. Stone, who once had a confident line in the rise of 'affective individualism' in the 18th century, is now much less inclined to look for patterns or progress. 'The 18th-century legal system, so clear, so lucid, so eminently reasonable in the calm exposition of Blackstone' turns out, he finds on closer inspection, 'to be a dense, complex, and bewildering jungle, full of contradictions, anomalies, legal fictions and downright foolishness'.

He even goes so far as to suggest that the conditions of modern courtship, with its highly variable degree of physical intimacy and official or unofficial co-habitation, resembles that of early modern England rather more than it does the 19th century.

Many of the cases he cites muddy the waters of current historical assumptions about the pattern of men and women's relationships in the past 400 years. Marital contracts once protected women's property much more than feminist historians have realised. What price patriarchy, moreover, when a woman like Mary Stenson could lead three suitors a merry and extremely amorous dance while her wealthy grandfather lay dying? How oppressed were jolly Mrs Harris and her two seductive daughters, Abigail and Clarissa? Or Constantia Philips, a serial bigamist with a sharp eye for the legal main chance?

'Truth', wrote Lord Byron, that most notorious of womanisers and most unsuccessful of husbands, 'is stranger than fiction; if it could be told, how much would novels gain by the exchange]' Lawrence Stone would agree. 'It is curious and comforting,' he concludes, 'to find that most of the themes illustrated by the case histories in this book also crop up in Defoe's novel, Moll Flanders, published in 1722.'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent