We have updated our Privacy Policy Please take a moment to review it. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the terms of our updated Privacy Policy.

The story of the English marriage is unique and eccentric. Long after the rest of Europe and neighbouring Scotland had reformed their marriage laws, England clung to the chaotic and contradictory laws of the medieval Church, making it all too easy to enter into a marriage but virtually impossible to end an unhappy one.

If England was a ‘paradise for wives’ it could only have been through the feistiness of the women. Married women were placed in the same legal category as lunatics. While Englishmen prided themselves on their devotion to liberty, their wives were no freer than slaves. It was a husband’s jealously guarded right to beat his wife, as long as the stick was no bigger than his thumb. Only after 1882 could a married woman even retain her own property. But then marriage was all about property in a society which was both mercenary and violent, where a girl was virtually sold into marriage and a price was put on a wife’s chastity.

With a cast of hundreds, from loyal and devoted wives in troubled times to those who featured in notorious trials for adultery, from abusive husbands whose excesses were only gradually curbed by the law to the modern phenomenon of the toxic wife, acclaimed historian Maureen Waller draws on intimate letters, diaries, court documents and advice books to trace the evolution of the English marriage. It is social history at its most revealing, astonishing and entertaining.


'One wonders how many wives will identify with the women - abused or put-upon, silly or ignorant, sentimental or feisty, sexy or the opposite - that they will meet in these fascinating pages'
Daily Mail, Peter Lewis
'a descriptive narrative of marital making and breaking, told through a tapestry of individual stories'
'Waller's wonderfully lively book brings to life the story of English marriage through accounts of mainly upper-class matches made for money or social advancement'
'The English Marriage...should be required reading. Waller uses meticulous research to piece together love letters, hate mail, private diaries, historic advice manuals and court judgements, tracing the evolution of the English marriage'/ 'a fascinating historical romp through the private lives of the great the good and the downright horrible'
The Times
'Her retelling of some of the most infamous nightmares in the history of English marriage is very well done'
'at times upsetting, astonishing and entertaining, but always informative, hugely readable and witty'
'And in her book The English Marriage, author Maureen Waller blames rising divorce rates on the fact that "the demand for emotional and sexual fulfilment from marriage has risen to unrealistic levels and there is less tolerance of boredom or a partner's shortcomings."'
The Gloss (Eire)
In a series of lively vignettes, Maureen Waller examines how the church and the state seized control of marriage, the link between property and chastity, legal battles over divorce, child custody and bigamy, as well as adultery, desertion, elopement and even wife sales