FOR BETTER, FOR WORSE: British Marriage, 1600 to the Present by John R. Gillis

FOR BETTER, FOR WORSE: British Marriage, 1600 to the Present

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This aspires to be the most comprehensive treatment to date of the history of marriage in a major Western society, and may welt have succeeded--here is more serious enquiry about the history of British marriages than nearly anyone may need. Gillis' own motive for writing it is shrouded in academic cloud-reading: ""Many may dismiss the courtship and marriage practices of the past as outdated, but I ask them to remember that history is our culture's repository of experience with the more problematic aspects of heterosexuality. If it can help us to understand our own ambivalences and cope more effectively with our present dilemmas, then the purpose of this book will be more than satisfied."" Gillis sees present-day marriage as a form of ""serial conjugality, a sequence of partnerships taken up and abandoned with bewildering rapidity, as men and women seek the perfect mate. Most of us will spend at least two-thirds of our lives as couples, much longer than any previous generation."" But conjugal love as a basis for marriage, he finds, is more illusion than reality. Betrothals and weddings have always been used to cement ties of family and community, without which ""the existence of the couple would not be viable."" Love is too fragile a base for establishing a home and family and does not really account for the history of heterosexuality during the past four centuries. All of this may come as a tremendous surprise to today's readers of women's magazines, should they ever stumble upon this artifact, but Gillis has many more surprises up his sleeve. Despite Victorian morality, and even earlier strictures, living together was frequently practiced in times gone by, while marriage is more popular today than a century ago--as is the big church wedding. Gillis discovers that while conjugal love was present--if at a low level--in preindustrial times, marriage today is often not a more companionate affair. Among today's young marrieds in Britain the honeymoon ends at about the third year, with the first pregnancy and the wife, perhaps permanently, no longer working. The loss of the enjoyable dual income brings on the first deep marital crisis. ""Very few British couples (especially of the working class) pool their incomes. . . Even when a woman is providing supplementary income, she has no money that she can call her own and is accountable for everything she spends out of their joint earnings. . . Even in this conjugal age, when both men and women more readily accept the notion of companionship baaed on liberty and equality, the tension between ideal and reality remains an intractable one."" Not likely to make wise people out of prospective couples, but a thoughtful overview of a very giant personal step. Otherwise mainly of interest to cultural anthropologists.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1985
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press