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A History of Marriage [Paperback]

Elizabeth Abbott
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 29 2009

A History of Marriage is a fascinating exploration of how marriage developed, and in light of the forces that continue to shape it, how marriage is likely to look in the future. Elizabeth Abbott, who made celibacy sexy in her acclaimed book A History of Celibacy, offers an absorbing blend of information and explanation. Real-life experiences are presented in their wider historical context: What were a couple's alternatives to staying together? What were the longevity rates and how long was the average marriage until death ended it? What were the differences between the experiences of wealthier and poorer spouses? In a provocative and lively style, Abbott puts a human face on marriage as she explores its nature in the context of love, sex, loyalty, childrearing, shared finances, and social recognition.

Frequently Bought Together

A History of Marriage + History Of Celibacy + History Of Mistresses
Price For All Three: CDN$ 49.54

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

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. 


'No thoughtful person - married, celibate, unfaithful or otherwise - should be without this book.' Mark Kingwell, author of The World We Want 'Deftly shows how this always fragile, yet always resilient institution has evolved. It's not always a pretty picture but it's a fascinating one.' Judith Timson, author of Family Matters 'Elizabeth Abbott has penned a masterpiece ... a wide-ranging account of how the social intersects with many forms of the personal.' Ahmad Saidullah, author of Happiness and Other Disorders --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A History of Marriage Sept. 15 2010
I bought this book after reading a review in Psychology Today. I expected it to describe how marriage developed, and to hopefully provide insights into what the institution has become as practiced today. This book has more than fulfilled my expectations! The first half (it's a long book!) tackles historical marriage thematically, who spouses were, and how they were chosen, how people learn what marriage is supposed to be, the meaning of weddings, love and sex in marriage (my favourite chapter), housework, children, even 'When Things Went Wrong,' separation, divorce etc. Author Elizabeth Abbott interweaves narrative and anecdotes from real life, and throughout the book manages to make all these issues fascinating. She's also a terrific writer and a real pleasure to read.

The second half of the book brings all these themes and some others ' the single state as an alternative to marriage, gay marriage - right up to the present, also always with individual examples. This includes photographs with detailed captions that bring her stories to life. (A few of the photographs are a bit blurred and/or too small.)

A History of Marriage was a fantastic read with a depth of research, an organization of material and a writing style that kept me glued to the pages from beginning to end.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Abbott does it again. Sept. 18 2010
By Luke
This is how history should be written: beautifully, with clarity, the authority of extensive research, and a great sense of humor. I came to A History of Marriage after reading Sugar: A Bittersweet History, historian Elizabeth Abbott's brilliant and moving exploration of the bitter consequences of sugarcane production, including the implementation of African slavery. A History of Marriage is just as well written and full of stories about individuals, most bit players whose experiences of marriage were probably typical of millions, and a few of those who managed to alter the course of history: Caroline Norton and Elizabeth Packard, whose dreadful marriages transformed them into powerhouse reformers. This book puts so much of how marriage works today into context. I hadn''t realized, for example, that in earlier times men always got child custody, even if they were at fault in ending their marriage.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great read Sept. 14 2010
By Abby
I loved this book, laughed throughout at Abbott's witticisms, and learned so much about historical marriage and how it has affected marriage today. A History of Marriage even taught me quite a bit about myself and my own relationship. I grew up believing that spouses should be soul-mates and best friends, but also that as a woman, I should not compromise my personal autonomy. My views haven't changed but now I have a deeper understanding of the historical development of both (conflicting) perspectives, and that so many others before me faced the same sort of challenges. This is the book I'm going to give my friends when they decide to marry!
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My first non-fiction book and I couldn't read it fast enough... This book tears down societal's preconceived notions of marriage and highlights the institutions' past, present and future impact on our every day lives. Don't be scared that it's history will bore you - Abbot does a fantastic job of using current examples (even referencing Ellen Degeneres and Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie) to keep your nose glued to each page. Colourfully written and a classic I was more than eager to add to my select shelf of marriage focused material...
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Reasonable July 11 2010
This book is well written, and rather engaging for the reader. Much of it is interesting, and even rather intense - from big topics like gender/racial rights, to the little histories, such as...ahem...the first mechanical device for self pleasuring.

However, I felt some parts of the book felt repetitive, mentioning the same tidbits of the same history and bringing up the same arguments. I also feel the need to disagree with some of the historical accuracies - for example, with the writings of Martin Luther (For some reason, he is mentioning quite often in comparison to many other writers/reformers/philosophers etc) I don't feel the author covered much of his own history properly, focusing mainly on the negative without following any other sort of liberal and modern views that the Luther family did have.(I would continue, but I won't fill up the space with an essay. But to casually make a quick one note: Martin was heavily involved in child care, he thought adamantly that women were under the same life burdens as men, were of equal value and disaproved of prejudices against women. Katharina was part doctor, part financial advisor and part business woman and was involved and informed of his writings. And no, after she left the convent, her main goal was NOT to get married and start a family. Too independent-minded for that, especially after leaving a tight establishment. People have to understand that his views as a single celibate monk changed significantly after he became a married man with babies. Why do so many focus mainly on the "sexist" parts?)

In addition, the chapter discussing the present and future of marriage had many subchapters that felt out of place, on occasion falling a tiny bit out of topic.
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