An engaging mishmash of general history and personal histories of marriage, by the Canadian author of A History of Celibacy (1999) and A History of Mistresses (2003).
Pick any page from this study of mostly North American rituals of courting, nuptials, marriage, sex, child-raising and divorce, and you could a wide range of intriguing nuggets: relative ages at which various societies from Chinese to Mormon married off their girls; details of the satisfying marriage of Martin Luther and former nun Katharina von Bora; the ruptured family units of Native American children removed to residential schools; the popularity of so-called Boston marriages (depicted nicely by Henry James in The Bostonians) between like-minded women who resisted conventional marriage but weren’t necessarily lesbian; the scarcity of sponges used for contraception by Northern women during the Civil War because of the cut-off in supply from Florida. Historian Abbott (Sugar: A Bittersweet History, 2008, etc.) divides her work into two amorphous thematic halves—“The Way We (Really) Were” and “The Way We Think We Were and the Way We Think We Are”—though she doesn’t pursue a didactic thread; instead, she weaves stories and facts in a kind of loosely fluid narrative that makes pleasant reading. The author has a flair for sweetening the facts with her palatable style, and can elegantly move from examining the elusive meaning of Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait to relating the 19th-century legal trials and writings of women’s-rights advocate Elizabeth Packard, whose husband imprisoned her in a mental asylum. Indeed, the leitmotif of this work may be the egregiously powerless position of the female in all societies—as girl, unmarried woman, wife, mother, divorcee, widow. In the last chapters, Abbott looks at some of the issues surrounding battering and abuse, divorce, taxation and gay marriage (she’s all for it). Ultimately, she wonders: Does marriage have a future?
A rich tapestry and colorful snapshot of an evolving institution—includes a helpful selective bibliography.