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A History of Marriage

by Elizabeth Abbott

What are the core values of marriage?  How does money, or the lack of it, affect the roles of spouses? What became of the double standard that permitted “a husband to take legal action against a wife who managed to withhold sex,” while “a wife could not lay rape charges against a husband who forced sex on her?” These are some of the questions Elizabeth Abbott probes in A History of Marriage, the third volume in an ad hoc trilogy that began with A History of Celibacy and continued with A History of Mistresses. (One wonders why the current volume did not precede the middle one.)  

The volume is divided into two parts. The first traces the evolution of marriage, while the second examines contemporary marriage and its potential future. Abbott focuses on the North American experience of marriage and its European antecedents, beginning with New France in the 17th century (although the text occasionally reaches back even further in time). 

Some of the pleasures of this volume are the paintings, sketches, and photographs that amplify the text. Highlights include a late-19th-century advertisement for a vibrator (“the fifth electrified domestic appliance after the sewing machine”) that euphemistically notes the device’s erotic potential, and an 1813 satirical sketch by George Cruikshank of the London social club Almack’s, a marriage mart for the elite.

Abbott’s evident passion for her subject and lively style of writing make A History of Marriage an absorbing read. Notwithstanding the topic’s extraordinary breadth, however, the book suffers from an embarrassment of riches. The author, a research associate at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, loves facts, and the deluge she provides begs for more filtering and synthesis. In one chapter, the reader learns that in some Crow tribes, the “berdache,” or “two spirit” people, embodying both male and female qualities, were permitted to marry partners of the same sex; that polyandry, a system under which women possess multiple husbands, has no North American history; and that the ancient Hebrews practised the levirate system, which required men to marry their brothers’ widows.

With its encyclopaedic range, the book feels encumbered by the sheer weight of its own erudition. A more incisive focus might have produced a stronger work.