The English Marriage, By Maureen Waller

This scholarly but highly readable work of social history traces the evolution of the English marriage from the late Middle Ages to the present day.

Originally, marriage laws were no more (or less) than a means of securing property; a woman had to hand over all the property she owned or that her family could endow her with, in return for the physical protection of a husband. Curiously, although English wives had no legal rights of their own, English women were much freer than their continental counterparts. There are some wonderful stories here, such as that of the 18th-century adventuress Con Phillips, serial mistress and bigamist, who was under house arrest when she self-published her memoirs and had to sell them through the window.

The English Marriage is the story of the gradual loosening of restrictions and granting of rights to women. What's heartening is that, despite the many abuses and cruelties the old marriage laws gave rise to (it was once legal for a man to beat his wife with a stick, as long as it was no thicker than his thumb), Maureen Waller supplies evidence that there were also happy, loving marriages in every age.