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.'