The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age; & Broken Lives
Ralph Houlbrooke reviews two new books on social history
Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 1660-1857
by Lawrence Stone (Oxford University Press xviii +355 pp.)
The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age
by Beatrice Gottlieb (Oxford University Press x + 309 pp.)
Both these hooks are concerned with aspects of the history of the family. But there the resemblance between them ends. Beatrice Gottlieb attempts a portrayal of the institution in the 'Western World' during a period of some 450 years, while Lawrence Stone tells the stories of the breakdowns of twelve marriages in England over a timespan less than half that long. These stories, with their special mixture of the comic, the tragic and the titillating, give Professor Stone maximum scope for the exercise of his considerable narrative powers.
'If the historian's prime task is to explain change over time, another equally important function is surely to bring the past alive to contemporary readers' (p.4). This Lawrence Stone has achieved with his customary flair in this series of case studies. They have been carefully chosen to illustrate not only some common causes of the failure of marriages, but also the development of the law, in which some of the cases played an important part. Cruelty on the part of husbands, usually associated with adultery, and adultery on the part of wives, were the two chief 'faults'. In some of the contests it was claimed that both had occurred. A judicial separation was the outcome of the majority of these breakdowns, especially where the husband's cruelty was the chief reason for legal proceedings. Only a minority, where the wife's infidelity seemed to be clearly proved, resulted in a dissolution of the marriage by act of parliament. The picture is more complex than these basic facts might suggest, because some of these couples fought each other in titanic legal battles which involved actions in several different courts.
These stories hinge on the exceptional behaviour of a small minority. Professor Stone admits that his book is 'inescapably concerned almost exclusively with marital breakdowns among the very rich' (p,4). Most of these marriages were vulnerable because of specific weaknesses. Considerable disparities of age or wealth between partners and the extremely violent tempers of some of the husbands, associated with alcoholism, mental instability or widely recognised eccentricity, were the most important.
Even if one grants that the great majority of unhappy spouses could not afford to go to law, or might be afraid of doing so, it still seems unlikely that more than a small proportion of marriages suffered from the handicaps which bulked so large in these cases. Professor Stone claims that they illustrate changing expectations and standards of behaviour. Up to a point he is right. But his picture of long-term change is somewhat schematic and overdrawn. Some exceptionally colourful material has tempted him into a misleadingly lurid characterisation of the period 1680-1720 in particular. 'Violence, perjury, rape, and obsessive promiscuous sexuality' are its hallmarks, he thinks (p.78).
Stone's book teems with a multitude of skilfully drawn supporting characters. It is also a fund of fascinating information on a host of subjects besides marriage and the law. It will be essential reading for anybody interested in the life of servants in upper-class households. Domestic architecture bulks large in one chapter, while another throws interesting light on early nineteenth-century government jobbery.
Beatrice Gottlieb provides a useful and readable introductory survey of the Western family. She is a shrewd and experienced guide who addresses her readers in a relaxed, sometimes almost conversational style refreshingly free of obscure jargon. It is not claiming too much to say that her book is a 'timely synthesis of a vast and complex literature' (dust jacket). It is divided into five parts, devoted respectively to the household, marriage, children and their upbringing, kinship, and 'Ideas and Ideals'. She tries both to identify predominant characteristics or patterns, and to do justice to the exceptions, and to tensions between competing aims or ideals.
In her sectional headings she establishes the framework for discussion in terms of alternatives or opposites: 'Duties or Pleasures', 'Love or Policy', 'Partnership or Hierarchy' and 'Household or School' are but a. few examples. Usually she decides that (he truth lies somewhere in between, or that one of the alternatives was dominant in some places, the other elsewhere, or that there was a change from one to the other over time. She is generally even-handed in dealing with the more controversial aspects of her subject, but also rather conservative. Remarks such as 'childhood was barely recognized as a distinct time of life, except in negative terms' (p.138), now look distinctly out of date. (Linda Pollock's Forgotten Children, which contains the most eloquent and exhaustive of many rebuttals of this particular argument, is not in the bibliography).
For all her skill, there are some problems which Beatrice Gottlieb has not been completely successful in surmounting. Aware though she is of the great variety of forms and practices within Europe, it is impossible to do them all justice in a book of this length. The strong prejudice against breastfeeding which existed in large areas of central and northern Europe is one important example of divergence from the norm which she does not mention. It would have been helpful to define the 'Western World'. In practice its eastern border seems to coincide roughly with the old Iron Curtain, but the bulk of the illustrative examples come from England, France, Italy and North America. And, though Beatrice Gottlieb frequently tries to incorporate change into her account, there is no clear identification and analysis of its main causes, or explanation of her choice of this particular timespan. Newcomers to the history of the family will nevertheless find this book very helpful in providing a framework for their subsequent studies, and they will return appreciatively to its more thought-provoking insights.
Ralph Houlbrooke is the editor of Death, Ritual and Bereavement (Routledge, 1989)
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology