Readers will turn from the steamy revelations in the text to the blandly simpering portraits in the book's centrefold with disbelief. Can that dignified lady really have tossed her petticoats over her head, Draughtsman's Contract style, in the meadows, and sported in the bath-house, the stables and the water-closet with her groom, earning herself the title 'The Wanton Wife, or, The Lady in the Straw'? Did the stately Duchess of Beaufort actually lie back to receive the amorous person of William, second Lord Talbot, 'on five or six dining chairs set side by side to form a kind of couch', leaving enough scraps of silver lace attached to them to suggest to the anxious butler that His Grace had been cruelly deceived?
Stone is a masterly storyteller, and his real-life plots make Fielding's Clarissa look bland. Spurned and cuckolded, William Middleton orders his wife's horse to be hatchetted and her dog hanged. When energetic bonking causes the springs of her landau barouche to break, Anne Loveden emerges 'much heated and red, with her hair disordered'. The Duke of Beaufort, 'with more than mortal courage', disproves his wife's swearing of his impotence by going behind a screen with five doctors and the Dean of the Court of Arches ('and the good old folks saw what amazed them]').
But these stories of parsons pleasured, dons delighted and dukes deceived are decidedly cautionary tales. Then as now, it is most often sexual jealousy which shatters matrimonial peace. Stone's theme is adultery's doleful toll of human misery: lives shattered, estates haemorrhaging into the purses of lawyers, children taken from their mother never to be seen again, mistresses cast off for more economically viable second spouses, morose men removing themselves to live in hermit-like seclusion, damning all womankind.
No one can ever again talk of a golden age of matrimony now that we know of the myriad more or less official contracts that hedged imperfect Adam around in his pursuit of unpredictable Eve, of the bigamists and adulterers condoned, of the infant carnage as the accidental byblows of adultery were put out to 'good killing nurses'. Our understanding of the inner world of private people in the past is enormously enriched by Stone's acute sense of the implications of detail.
Stone has also aimed to trace the 'slow, irregular and tentative evolution of moral values concerning relations between the sexes'. But the case studies do not quite prove or disprove Stone's theories about 'affective individualism', the mysterious growth of more emotional tenderness between the sexes.
We still seem to lack a completely convincing dynamic for our rapid recent moral (or rather immoral) evolution. Romance and libido are hardly new inventions, and only cynics will limit themselves to economic determinism. Perhaps we need to be altogether more pragmatic. Stone hints interestingly at the effect of improved communications on Dryden's 'strong seducer, opportunity'. A study of the contribution of such things as proper roads and telephones on the sexual destiny of the country could give a quite new slant to the history of the emotions. There is certainly an infinite distance between Anne Loveden's cumbersome landau barouche and Brief Encounter's use of the railway; between risky billets doux delivered by untrust-
worthy servants and the heady any time, anywhere intimacy of the car phone.Reuse content