Broken Lives

In BROKEN LIVES, Lawrence Stone continues his work of the past two decades on the social history of England’s landed elites. Stone’s introductory chapter reveals how difficult it was to get out of an unhappy marriage. Divorce with permission to remarry came only on grounds of adultery and only through a private bill in Parliament. Even lesser steps, such as legal separation, could entail costly and lengthy litigation. As a result, only the very wealthy had recourse to legal dissolution of marriage.

The remainder of Stone’s book consists of case studies of separation and divorce drawn from court records. In these cases, litigants went to extremes to break free from mates or counter the legal maneuvers of their estranged spouses. They would pay servants to expose (or cover up) adulterous affairs, bankrupt each other with pointless suits, bribe witnesses into giving false testimony, and employ influential relatives to pressure their opponents into submission. Judging from the twelve cases Stone discusses, the usual results were bitterness, recrimination, and tremendous financial loses for both sides, oftentimes without any clear-cut victor or satisfactory settlement.

BROKEN LIVES makes for entertaining reading, particularly when describing the role of servants in the illicit amours of their masters. Stone also demonstrates his thorough grasp of marriage and family law and incorporates this well into his accounts. One wishes, though, that Stone had engaged more in the kind of insightful analysis of historical evidence found in some of his other works of the past twenty years.