Jemima Lewis: For richer, for poorer - but not for children

I am in my mid-30s: who knows if my wrinkled ovaries can produce the goods?
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The Independent Online

The respectable burghers of Great Dunmow are not amused. The Essex town is best known for hosting the 900-year-old Dunmow Flitch Trails, in which married couples vie to demonstrate their connubial happiness. Those who succeed in convincing a judge and jury that they have not quarrelled in "twelvemonth and a day" are presented with a side - or flitch - of bacon, and carried through the streets by men in olde-worlde peasant smocks and neckerchiefs, to the delight of passing tourists.

It's the kind of barmy festivity at which rural English towns excel - but lately, the spirit of merriment has soured. The current Flitch Trial Judge, solicitor Michael Chapman, wants to open up the competition to same-sex partners - causing apoplexies among traditionalists. The arguments for and against are wearily familiar: we have to move with the times; it's political correctness gone mad; civil partnerships don't count as real marriages; it's the love that counts.

And finally, from former Flitch winner Fred Shephard, 86, we have this old chestnut: "It's about what marriage stands for, and having children in wedlock."

With the greatest respect to Mr Shephard (who must know a thing or two about marriage, having been at it for 66 years), this child-centric definition of wedlock won't wash. For one thing, its logic is being overtaken by events. Increasing numbers of gay couples are having children within civil partnerships; does that mean conservatives will recognise their form of marriage as genuine? I think not. And what of those respectable married couples who, for whatever reason, don't have children? Does that make their union less valid?

The idea that procreation is the chief purpose of wedlock is a saccharine fiction concocted by the church and popularised by the Victorians. In reality, marriage is, and always has been, more about making money than making babies.

Until the 1753 Marriage Act, the state did not interfere in the romantic arrangements of the masses. Except for royalty and the upper classes, whose dynastic weddings demanded a show of pomp, matrimony was a private - and somewhat haphazard - affair. No particular ceremony was required: only that the couple should promise themselves to each other in front of witnesses.

Many women preferred to stick to common-law arrangements in order to retain their fiscal independence. People with family businesses, such as cobblers, often discouraged their children from getting married, preferring them to live - and work - at home. Daughters might have babies of their own, but they would remain with their parents, contributing to the family coffers in exchange for help with childcare. Far from raising eyebrows, this was considered a highly respectable arrangement. As one contemporary put it: "The folk of Framlingham say that none but whores and blackguards marry. Honest folks take each other's word for it."

The Marriage Act - which required bans to be issued and the ceremony held in church - was intended to bring order to this chaos. It was aimed primarily at the moneyed classes, to stop their daughters from eloping with unsuitable adventurers, but it had the effect of putting everyone's domestic life into the hands of the church. For the next two centuries, marriage was portrayed as a moral and familial duty - one that, though it legally impoverished women and made men rich, was especially incumbent on the fairer sex.

Marriage is a better deal for women now, of course - we are even allowed to keep our own money! - but it remains in large part a fiscal institution. Civil partnerships were introduced to give gay couples the same economic perks as heterosexual ones. Analysts believe that one reason married couples are less likely to split up than cohabiting ones is the prohibitive cost of untangling their finances.

It doesn't sound very romantic, I know, but in a curious way, it is. I am getting married this time next week. All my adult life I have been financially independent, and proud of it. I worked hard and put money into pension funds and ISAs. I bought a house I couldn't afford in an unfashionable area of London, and watched with relief as property prices rose. I fought my spendthrift instincts, and tried to plan for a self-sufficient future as a spinster.

Now I am marrying an entrepreneur: the kind of man who believes in risking huge sums to make even bigger ones. I am selling my house and buying shares in his business. We recently set up a joint account, which means - a concept that still brings me out in a cold sweat - that I can spend his money, and he can spend mine. If marriage is about trust, there can be no greater proof than this.

I am in my mid-30s: who knows whether my wrinkled ovaries will be able to produce the goods? If procreation were the only point of marriage, I would not think there any point at all. I am marrying Henry because he makes the mundane seem like an adventure; and because if I'm going to be richer or poorer, I want it to be with him.

jemima.lewis@virgin.net

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