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Living in sin

Living in sin: Cohabiting as husband and wife in nineteenth-century England

Ginger S. Frost
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Living in sin
    Book Description:

    "Living in sin" is the first book-length study of cohabitation in nineteenth-century England, based on research into the lives of hundreds of couples. ‘Common-law’ marriages did not have any legal basis, so the Victorian courts had to wrestle with unions that resembled marriage in every way, yet did not meet its most basic requirements. The majority of those who lived in irregular unions did so because they could not marry legally. Others, though, chose not to marry, from indifference, from class differences, or because they dissented from marriage for philosophical reasons. This book looks at each motivation in turn, highlighting class, gender and generational differences, as well as the reactions of wider kin and community. Frost shows how these couples slowly widened the definition of legal marriage, preparing the way for the more substantial changes of the twentieth century, making this a valuable resource for all those interested in Gender and Social History.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-141-2
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction (pp. 1-8)

    In July 1875, George Henry Lewes, a man of letters and a scientist, accepted an invitation to a garden party which the Queen of Holland attended. During the course of the afternoon, Lewes had a conversation with the monarch. She complimented his writings, then added, ‘as to your wife’s – all the world admires them’.¹ What is startling about this story was that Lewes’s legal wife, Agnes, had never written a book in her life. Instead, the queen referred to Lewes’s cohabitee, Marian Evans (George Eliot), with whom he had lived for seventeen years. Nor was the Dutch queen unique...

  5. 1 Cohabitation, illegitimacy, and the law in England, 1750–1914 (pp. 9-31)

    Though conservatives liked to believe otherwise, the legal definition of marriage changed over time, including and excluding couples as it did so. The key legislation in these transformations was the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, a watershed in family law. Parliament took control over the regulation of marriage, challenging the principle of marriage as an eternal sacrament, since the state now determined who was married and who was not. In addition, this act and subsequent pieces of legislation tightened the laws of marriage and defined marriages more rigorously. As English law divided those married from those unmarried, a growing number...

  6. 2 Violence and cohabitation in the courts (pp. 32-51)

    Like the civil law, criminal courts showed ambivalence about, rather than simple disapproval of, irregular unions. In fact, the juries and especially judges focused as much on the men as the women in the cases, and did not allow middle-class status to excuse violence. This fact complicates the traditional view of English criminal justice as patriarchal, class-biased, and moralistic. Though Victorian justice could be all of those things, it was not invariably so, and even when it was, the results were not predictable.

    This chapter focuses on cases of violence within cohabiting families, based on a collection of 217 violent...

  7. 3 Affinity and consanguinity (pp. 52-71)

    English law did not permit marriage between those too closely related by blood or marriage. These prohibitions followed Leviticus 18, which banned marriages with kin of the first and second degrees. For example, a woman could not marry her uncle or stepfather, nor the husband of her deceased granddaughter or niece; a man could not marry his stepaunt or his grandniece.¹ The most controversial issue during the Victorian period was the prohibition over marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, but unions between other relatives were common, including women and deceased husbands’ brothers, uncles and nieces, and several which crossed generational...

  8. 4 Bigamy and cohabitation (pp. 72-95)

    Because of the strict divorce law in England, few unhappy couples could end their unions legally. Thus, many couples lived apart, either by mutual consent or because of desertion. These separations could be long standing, and sometimes one or both of the partners wished to remarry. Such marriages were bigamous and a felony at English law. Most couples would not open themselves up to these charges and so cohabited or parted, but others took the risk, apparently a substantial number.¹ According to theJudicial Statistics of England and Wales, bigamy trials occurred 5,327 times between 1857 and 1904, an average...

  9. 5 Adulterous cohabitation (pp. 96-122)

    Most couples who could not marry because of previous unions did not go through another ceremony. Middle-class couples, in particular, avoided breaking the law, but many working-class couples were also cautious. Though they escaped criminal sanctions, these couples’ relationship with the state was not severed, but, in some ways, more vexed. They also faced social difficulties; open adultery was a much more serious offence than affinal unions, especially for women. The social stain did not convince such couples that they were in the wrong, though; many, to the contrary, argued that their cohabitation was a true marriage, unlike the broken...

  10. 6 The ‘other Victorians’: the demimonde and the very poor (pp. 123-147)

    The majority of people who cohabited in the nineteenth century did so because they could not marry, but some couples lived together by choice. These fall into four categories: the very poor, the ‘criminal’ classes, the demimonde, and, finally, cross-class couples. This last category is the subject of Chapter 7. This chapter concentrates on the first three of these groups, with the most emphasis on the first, since the second and third groups have received more historical attention. What these couples had in common was their unrespectability, due either to poverty or their professions. They made up two major segments...

  11. 7 Cross-class cohabitation (pp. 148-168)

    InMary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell offers a depiction of Victorian cross-class liaisons through the character of Mary’s Aunt Esther, who ran away with an army officer and lived with him for three years. They had a little girl, but he left her when his regiment was called away. In rapid succession, her business failed, her daughter died, and she became an alcoholic prostitute.¹ Gaskell assumed that cross-class matings were between wealthy men and poorer women, that they were temporary, and that the lower-class woman paid the price for her ‘fall’. In some ways, this portrait was accurate. The vast majority...

  12. 8 Radical couples, 1790–1850 (pp. 169-194)

    From the 1790s to the early twentieth century, some couples consciously dissented from the marriage ceremony because of its indissolubility, the influence of the state or the church on it, or the disabilities that it gave to women. Often the dissent from marriage was a part of a larger critique – for example, by anarchists, socialists, or feminists. At times, too, those who disliked marriage did so from bitter experience, radicalised by their own marital failures. Whatever the cause, these unions diverged by gender. Because of the economic weakness of women, they seldom wholeheartedly supported experimentation, and power relationships existed...

  13. 9 Radical couples, 1850–1914 (pp. 195-224)

    The last half of the nineteenth century saw two major phases in marital radicalism. The first phase, lasting roughly from 1850 to 1880, was primarily theoretical. Most couples, whatever their reservations about the institution, chose to marry legally during this period. Mid-century was the high tide of Victorian respectability, and couples could achieve reforms only if they disassociated themselves from scandals. Thus, the working-class movement turned to trade unionism and its version of domesticity, and feminists concentrated on legal equality. Those couples who could not marry lived together discreetly or formed platonic partnerships. Thefin-de-siècleperiod (1880–1914) was different....

  14. Conclusion (pp. 225-235)

    Cohabitees were the exceptions, not the rule, in nineteenth-century England. As such, one could dismiss them as unimportant in the broader scheme of family history. Yet these couples confronted the question of what makes a marriage in ways that made state and religious authorities distinctly uncomfortable. Cohabitees could do this because cohabitation was both similar and different from marriage, depending on circumstances. For those who wanted to be married, it was a second choice, but one which pointed up the inequities of English law. For those who chose not to marry, cohabitation was a positive state in itself, particularly for...

  15. Bibliography (pp. 236-254)
  16. Index (pp. 255-264)