This is a collection of marital horror stories from 1465 to the present day, and, like all good horror stories, it runs an icy finger down your spine. Maureen Waller’s subject is less the English marriage than the absence, until recently, of the English divorce. For centuries, England lagged behind Scotland and the rest of Europe in clinging to the obscure marriage laws of the medieval church that left warring spouses little choice but to wait until death to part. Not until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act was divorce made accessible; no sooner had the new court opened its doors than it was presented with 253 petitions.
“Each unhappy marriage is unhappy after its own fashion,” Waller writes, but the marriages she describes tell the same grim story again and again. The cast of characters includes generations of aspiring parents fighting over their bewildered children, loveless and unconsummated unions, wives either bored or bullied beyond endurance, and the harrowing cruelty of husbands. These days, a husband who hurls a bread roll across the supper table can be accused of unreasonable behaviour, but time was when he could beat his wife to within an inch of her life and be acquitted: she was, after all, his property. Under the old ecclesiastical laws, on her wedding day the blushing bride stepped into “the same legal category as wards, lunatics, idiots and outlaws”. Should her husband feel like it, he was entitled to tie her up, steal her children and lock her away.