BOOK REVIEW / Fascinating theories of laughter and forgetting: World changes in divorce patterns - William J Goode: Yale, pounds 27.50

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THE LORD CHANCELLOR's announcement of the Green Paper on divorce legislation should intensify demand for this fascinating book on cross-cultural trends in divorce. William J Goode is that rare bird, a sociologist who adventures beyond his statistics and chances his arm with speculation about What it all Means. Twenty years ago he wrote a book on world changes in family patterns which is still worth reading. Now he gives us the fruit of long labours in amassing and comparing divorce customs from Mecca to Manchester, Tokyo to Tennessee.

The cumulative effect of his data is to lay our woolly visions of past or present golden ages of matrimony conclusively to rest. There were plenty of ways of getting away from an unwelcome spouse well before divorce legislation made such separations measurable. In Catholic Italy as many as 400,000 couples were already tacitly living apart before the 1970 legislation allowed them the option of regularising their disunion.

Goode also reveals that divorce is by no means a Western disease, but epidemic across the world. The Japanese divorce rate in the late 19th century outdid even that of the United States today. So many marriages failed early that the register was rarely signed for a year at least. But there was an important difference. There was no stigma attached to the bride returning home and having another shot at marriage later on, and she was given a great deal of kinship support.

'The key to successful coupledom,' Goode suggests, 'is a high divorce rate coupled with an equally high remarriage rate . . . It is only in modern Western Europe and some Eastern (and Arab) countries that we find a large and growing number of divorced mothers who become single heads of family units at low wages or on social welfare and remain unmarried for increasingly long periods or indefinitely.'

It was increased admiration of Western ideas of romantic all-time matrimony, allied to the need for workings partnerships to achieve economic prosperity, that combined to make rapid divorce unfashionable in Japan, just at the time, ironically enough, that the West started seeking it with enthusiasm. 'Divorce is a consumer good,' writes Goode. 'Rates rise with prosperity, and fall during a long depression, even though economic problems can create marital stress.'

The big question, of course, is whether or not government legislation can cut the divorce rate. Stalin managed to curb the liberty-loving Soviets' laughter and forgetting by imposing draconian penalties for divorce in 1944, but, says Goode, the result was 'internal dissolution of the family' and a flood of separations once measures were lifted in 1965. Rates in Germany dipped dramatically in 1976 when ex-wives were given an entitlement to half their husband's pension (a measure which is still quietly being considered in the Lord Chancellor's office), but the trend up continued.

What are the causes of the worldwide gadarene rush to be alone? Goode rounds up the usual suspects (women's increased economic clout, contraception, individualism), but is unwilling to commit himself on which is the most influential. Research in recent years has, rightly in his opinion, shifted from quibbling about causes to managing the damage. 'The Nordic countries have quietly put more energy and money than others into solving problems, and less into moral hand-wringing and denunciation.' As a result, in those countries, although there are still disadvantages to broken homes, a smaller percentage of single-parent families live in poverty, few children born out of wedlock are deprived of support and ex-husbands are much less likely to escape their financial responsibilities. Lord Mackay, please note.