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Response to Review no. 551

It is a great honour to have my book reviewed by Gail Savage, and I am grateful to her for her fair assessment and summary of my arguments. Savage’s own published work picks up the story of marital violence and divorce where mine ends, since she has examined the cases that were brought to the Divorce Court that was established under the terms of the Divorce Act 1857. Her survey of the social status and gender of petitioners for divorce; analysis of attitudes towards the transmission of venereal disease as a form of marital cruelty; and investigation of the work of magistrates and marriage separation in the early twentieth century, has enriched our understandings of the experience of marriage and divorce in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her forthcoming book, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Divorce and Divorce Law Reform in England, 1857–1937, is eagerly awaited.

Savage makes a number of critical points about my book that I would like to discuss here. Savage notes the absence of quantitative analysis in my work. It is certainly the case that I have drawn upon a significant number of legal disputes for marriage separation, assault, and confinement that were heard in a range of courts over the period 1660–1857. It might well be thought that this material would lend itself to presentation in table form and to quantitative analysis. Savage argues that this approach would also allow readers to assess the representativeness of the examples that I then analyse. I resisted presenting the evidence of marital violence in this way for two reasons. The first was logistical. The records of marital violence in the period before 1857 are far less conducive to quantitative analysis than those produced by the Divorce Court in the late-Victorian period. Based in London, the new Divorce Court heard all divorce and matrimonial business from across England. Records of its proceedings are now held at the National Archives. In contrast, before 1857 litigants seeking marriage separation would submit cases to the church court in their nearest diocese, and those in pursuit of a full divorce pursued a private act of Parliament. Since those who could prove cruelty could only achieve marriage separation, it is the records of the church courts that have proved most valuable to historians of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Generally speaking, these records are still held locally by dioceses, and their rate of survival varies considerably. Similarly, records of assault cases heard by magistrates at quarter and petty sessions are patchy, particularly for those that were heard at petty sessions, where minutes were often not kept of proceedings. Hence the kind of quantitative analysis of cases of marital violence heard at a national level over a sustained period of time that is possible for the period post 1857 is a far more difficult, if not an impossible exercise, for the preceding period.

The second reason why I decided against quantitative analysis is because I thought that such an approach would be misleading. We will never know how much marital violence occurred in the past (indeed, we do not know how much it occurs today). I was concerned that if I presented the data from instances of marital violence that did reach the stage of legal proceedings it might suggest a complete picture of what was occurring within marriages across the period of my study, and encourage mistaken conclusions about how far the incidents of violence were increasing or decreasing, or the position of women was improving or declining. Furthermore, given the multi-faceted nature of marital violence, and the complexities of the narratives of abuse that were heard in the courts, separating their components for the purposes of quantitative analysis seemed to me to be an artificial exercise. I thought it was far more helpful to analyse the detail of the cases of marital violence that survive, and to provide a sample of examples that illustrated some common themes and issues. Of course, this required me to select aspects of cases to support my argument, but I tried to do so by not only choosing cases that were heard across the period 1660–1857, but also ones that involved litigants from different social backgrounds. This was why I thought it was important to examine instances of marital violence that were heard outside the church court context, as these largely concerned litigants who were middle class.

An important popular misunderstanding about marital violence that historians have done little to address is that this is, and was, violence that only took a physical form. This flies in the face of the evidence. During the period of my study, marital violence was experienced, understood, and often defined as assuming sexual and verbal, as well as physical, components. Savage questions whether I should have labelled verbal abuse as violence. I would maintain that this was increasingly how contemporaries viewed this kind of behaviour, especially when it took place within middle- or upper-class marriages. A polite or respectable household was not one in which a husband continually swore at his wife. We have to pay attention to what was said. Husbands who repeatedly threatened physical violence, or directed sexual insults at their wives, could produce similarly devastating effects of fear, intimidation, and humiliation as those who used their fists. We cannot fully understand the damage caused by marital violence by only studying its physical forms.

Finally, it was striking to me how often women (both wealthy and poor) who were living with these kinds of violence also complained of aspects of material deprivation. Husbands were accused of denying their wives the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, and fuel. This type of behaviour contributed to the physical and emotional sufferings endured by women in violent marriages, it weakened their ability to resist their violent husbands, and it produced anxieties about the possibilities of financial self-sufficiency and independence amongst women who were contemplating leaving violent relationships. Hence I do think that the issue of women’s rights to property is relevant to a discussion of marital violence. In contrast to the position taken by Lawrence Stone, I believe that the Divorce Act was not a significant turning point for women, but that the reform of married women’s property law that followed in 1870 and 1872 represented a far more significant change. Savage is right that we need to know more about how these legislative changes were achieved, and the political role that prominent women such as Caroline Norton played in gaining such reform. I look forward to reading her findings on this issue.