walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Living in Sin_, Ginger S. Frost

Subtitled: Cohabiting as Husband and Wife in Nineteenth-Century England
Published by Manchester University Press

Ginger Frost is "Professor of History at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama"

I got this when I was in the throes of divorce research a few months ago. I have a great-grandfather who was divorced twice and a grandmother who was divorced three times; each married 4 times in the course of their lives. When I was first collecting their decrees, I was not entirely certain I would find them -- I thought there was a chance that they had moved and remarried without getting divorced. However, in the end, I found all the decrees; there was no bigamy.

Divorce laws in the first half of the twentieth century, when my ancestors were ending their marriages, made divorce much more available to working class and poor people than they ever had been before. It wasn't just extending the grounds for divorce; it was a reduction in costs as well.

Frost's focus is the "long nineteenth century", and she works with a variety of evidence: criminal records, lawsuits, probate and so forth, using newspapers to cast a wider net. She attempts to characterize, if not quantify, how many opposite-sex couples lived together as husband and wife without being legally married to each other and why. The most common reason across the time period was inability to marry, either due to affinity (and in that group, men wanting to marry their deceased wife's sister is the most common case, by a lot) or prior marriage. Many times, the couple married anyway, and got into trouble with perjury/bigamy statutes, or difficulties arose when one of the couple died and the will became a problem. She does a great job explaining the effects of changes in the marriage law and the Poor Law.

The people most likely to live together without being married were working class/poor. Frost tries to understand the gradations of working class/poor (respectable, rough, criminal), while recognizing the difficulty of doing this given the sources and contemporary commentators inability to understand the people they were prosecuting/describing/criticizing/attempting to advocate fore.

This is not narrative non-fiction; it is chronological, and suffers from the catalog-of-relevant-items problems typical of this sort of monograph (that is, that's _the point_ of the book, even tho it affects readability for a general audience as a result). I had some issues with Frost's analysis, particularly when she was describing Engels and the Burns sisters. While I recognize there are significant problems with the documentation of these relationships, the relentless cataloging of the children that resulted from other relationships in conjunction with no mention of children for either of the Burns would seem to be worth _some_ kind of commentary. I also felt that Frost created an impression of continuity in the relationship between Engels and Mary Burns that is not justified by the evidence.

Frost also appears to have some beliefs about emotional attachments being disproportionately on the woman's side that I don't necessarily agree with, and which her evidence, particularly towards the end of her time frame, does not really support. A lot of her evidence from nineteenth century judge's comments also suggest alternative interpretations for decisions that she only barely considers. Notably, in the turning state's evidence case where the not-wife and her child receive the share of the robber who flips, the explanation seems simple: the state wanted the criminal to make possible prosecution and this was his compensation -- it has nothing to do with "recognizing the relationship".

But it is a surprisingly readable book, and very interesting. If you've ever suffered from the mistaken belief that marriages used to last because they were happy, this'll clear that right up, and prevent you from getting suckered into any nutty ideas that making divorce hard will somehow improve things for families/women/children/wtf. (I'm not saying there weren't happy marriages, just that a lot of marriages lasted despite vast unhappiness because the alternatives were really, really limited.)

ETA: I read this in paper form. I bought it used.
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