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A History of Marriage by Elizabeth Abbott

A History of Marriage (2010)

by Elizabeth Abbott

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Elizabeth Abbott’s book The History of Marriage follows the institution from medieval times to the present. The main limitation she states upfront – she only looks at marriage in Western history. This is an admirable and well-researched examination of a constantly changing institution. Abbott nicely balances view of marriage in the upper, middle and working classes. Being Canadian, she includes material from that country which was a refreshing change from the usual Europe and America-centric accounts. She also takes care to include the effect of slavery on marriage in her look at historical marriage in the U.S. The broad scope of the book is balance by personal accounts though occasionally I thought they were distributed somewhat randomly and didn’t always relate to the subject that she was covering. As would be the case in any large-scale history, Abbott is more interested in some subjects than others and often spends time on areas of controversy.

The book is divided into two parts – historical marriage and marriage in the 20th century and current issues. Abbott starts with the basics of who can get married. One would think a person would have to be alive, but Abbott mentions a couple instances where that is not the case. From there, she moves on to rites of passage and preparation for marriage, the marriage ceremony itself, married life – including housing, love and sex, children – and divorce. Sometimes there would be a lot of jumping around from country to country or century to century. Also, the randomly inserted personal histories would pop up here – maybe just ones that Abbott found interesting while she was researching. One area that she covers in depth is the controversy over whether 18th/19th century parents felt love and affection for their children or were rather cold and punishing towards them. Abbott also spends time describing the limiting perfect wife models – The Good Wife and The Angel in the House. The section on divorce was one of the best – riveting and relevant personal accounts, statistics and cases, a primer on the laws. I enjoyed reading about all the laws and worries regarding secret marriages which were a threat to parental authority. Fears regarding childbirth and high numbers of child deaths were given life from the firsthand accounts that are added. Historical birth control methods and abortionists were also interesting subjects.

The section on modern marriage covers singlehood, gay marriage, parenting, money and race. Here, Abbott focuses mostly on Canada and America. For the most part, the chapters are thorough and well-written. The coverage of modern divorce and mixed families is rather shallow – a listing of potential issues, most of which would be familiar. However, in the chapter on race, Abbott looks in detail at the sad history of Native children who were removed from their families in Canada and the legal quest for recognition for women who married non-Native men. Native status conferred many rights but women would lose those if they married out. Men, however, could not lose their status. The laws were ones handed down by the white government pushing their ideas of marriage on the tribes. Sadly, some of the cases were still ongoing just a few years ago. I think this was a case of Abbott choosing to focus on her interests, which happens a couple times in the book. It didn’t bother me too much though and I’ll be looking for the other books on related subjects, A History of Mistresses and A History of Celibacy. ( )
1 vote DieFledermaus | May 21, 2012 |
This book really dragged at times, and I can't say it taught me anything really earth shattering or new. That said, it was interesting at times. ( )
  lemontwist | Nov 27, 2011 |
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A History of Marriage paints an often surprising picture of this most public, yet most intimate, institution, a complex tradition that includes arranged marriages, dowries, same-sex marriages, self-marriages and child brides.

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Seven Stories Press

3 editions of this book were published by Seven Stories Press.

Editions: 1609800885, 1609800850, 1609806190

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