Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The history of marriage and divorce

I found this absolutely brilliant potted history of marriage today, instead of writing my book on parenting...

Ten key moments in the history of marriage

What I love about this piece is that it is so specific about each era of marriage. In 10 simple steps, it shows the exact evolution from chattel to love match across nearly 2000 years of the institution, via the different edicts and statutes that first accommodated, then enshrined, social change.

My sense of history is not nearly specific enough, because I stopped studying history at FOURTEEN. This is because, in my lovely, proper girls' school, we had to choose between history and geography at O level. Woe betide anyone who thought it might possibly be useful to go on studying both — gosh, it might take you over the decreed number of subjects!

Meanwhile the parallel boys' school merrily put its gilded youth in for French and maths early, got them on to O/A level, and let them do as many O levels as they enjoyed. Ah! The difference between education for the female and the male...

So, through studying literature, I have a very vague, mainly psychological, understanding of the history of marriage, but don't know any dates.

Yet the history of divorce, for example, is absolutely fascinating, and impacts profoundly on the lot of woman, almost as much as the hoover, the vote and the pill.

Turns out 1969 is the key year in the UK, because of the Divorce Reform Act. This is what allowed couples to cite 'marital breakdown' as grounds for ending a marriage, as opposed to an amazingly difficult process of proving adultery (or, for women, trying to prove 'aggravated' adultery in their spouses: cheating + bestiality, for example... ).

It's instructive to compare the history of divorce in the UK with its counterpart in France.

In France, le divorce first became legal just after the French Revolution, in 1792, and enabled all kinds of people, rich and poor, to divorce quickly and easily.

Divorce rates duly soared.

Under Napoleon and his Code Civil, by 1803, divorce was back under state control. Women could be divorced for simple adultery, while a man could be convicted of adultery only if he brought his mistress into his home. No double standard there, then.

Divorce was subsequently abolished all over again, in 1816, under Louis XVII, and was only re-established in 1884, under the Third Republic.

There were attempts to bring it back in 1830 and 1848, the nineteenth-century revolutionary years, but these attempts foundered.

Ultimately, it was thanks to the tireless campaigning of one Alfred Naquet that divorce re-entered the French statute in 1884. La loi Naquet is how many French people know this progressive 'socialist' triumph.

Fascinating: such are the historical facts that underpin what was dramatized and reflected in the French novel across the 19th century. Because divorce had been abolished, women could not escape failed marriages.

Realism, particularly the realist novel, epitomized by Flaubert's Madame Bovary, is often seen as cashing in on the dysfunctional institution of marriage. I knew Emma Bovary was unhappy, but I didn't know why she couldn't just walk out.

The loosening of the stays of marriage, I think, travelled into the study of literature, which is also in many ways an affair of the home and the heart. By the time I was studying French literature in the 1980s and 1990s, we were all in love with critical theory, and it's perhaps important to note that Barthes's Death of the Author essay appeared in 1967, around the time that divorce was finally being unshackled in the UK.

Questions of authority and institutional supremacy were being asked forcefully everywhere, and one of the consequences for students like me was (oddly, given the heady freedoms), a hermetic structuralist focus on the text itself, at the expense of context and history.

Universities produced excellent close readers without an ounce of common sense or broader perspective. Or at least I managed to do well in my French degree despite knowing next to nothing about French history.

Unfortunately what I have since discovered is that in a world inhabited by more than just me, you happen to need an understanding of things like the law in order to survive and prosper. Employment or property law, for example. And British history (sorry, which class do I belong to again? and am I indeed British if I have a funny foreign name? and can my children be British?).

So, all these years later, here I am struggling with facts and figures, statutes and policy, having spent my education sloughing them off as so many impediments.

Is this empowering, or does it crush creative thought? Or is it just an inevitable part of getting older?

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