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The History of Marriage through the Lens of Case Studies
Katherine Pickering Antonova. An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. ix + 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-979699-1 (cl).
Aaron Spencer Fogleman. Two Troubled Souls: An Eighteenth-Century Couple’s Spiritual Journey in the Atlantic World. Chapel HillM: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. xiii + 321 pp. ISBN 978-1-4696-0879-2 (cl).
Angela Onwuachi-Wilig. According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. xii + 325 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-16682-8 (cl).
Siân Reynolds. Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xvi + 326 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-956042-4 (cl).

Each of these four books treating marriage in diverse regions of the world and across a variety of historical periods focuses on the story of an individual couple. While concentrating on one relationship, the authors work to draw broader conclusions based on the single case under examination. Taken together, these quite different books lead to one overarching conclusion: marriage has always been a complicated and varied institution that can take a wide variety of forms and paths based on the desires and personalities of the two people involved, the people around them, and the political, economic, and legal contexts in which they led their lives. In our current period, with attention drawn to questions of gay marriage and other new and more flexible approaches to defining what marriage is or should be, it is worthwhile to examine how couples viewed their relationships in earlier periods and in different geographical, political, and economic contexts. The marriages examined in these four books stretch our assumptions about the nature of marital relations prior to the late twentieth century. In addition, the wives in these stories were all formidable women who managed to exercise considerable autonomy and agency within the patriarchal institution of marriage. Their lives and experiences help us to reconsider the power and limitations of institutions like marriage and demonstrate [End Page 157] the multiplicity of ways that women (and men) could push against them while constructing a sense of meaning for themselves.

In Two Troubled Souls, Aaron Spencer Fogleman traces the story of a Moravian couple, Maria Barbara Knoll (d. 1777) and Jean-François Reynier (1712–1775), who traveled from Europe to the Americas in the early eighteenth century, first to Suriname and eventually to North America, where they settled in Pennsylvania and then Georgia. Fogleman’s exhaustive research in multiple archives on both sides of the Atlantic allows him to tell an engaging tale that sheds light on religion, race, gender, and sexuality in multiple geographic contexts while exploring the experiences and concerns of one couple. This was a marriage that the couple had little control over: the Moravian leaders selected them for each other, determined how their wedding would be consummated (while watching!), and informed them where they would be living their lives and where to devote their energies. The husband, Jean-François Reynier, had a strong sense of himself as patriarch, expecting his wife to obey unquestioningly. In part because she refused to bow to his every whim, theirs was a deeply unhappy marriage. Yet it survived, and so did the two people involved in it despite rampant disease and tensions with indigenous populations in their first tropical destination, Suriname, and then many political and psychological traumas once they moved to the slightly less harsh surroundings of colonial North America.

According to Fogleman, Maria Barbara Knoll (Reynier) managed to exercise a high level of autonomy and “challenged male authority throughout her life,” first within her family and then with her husband (92).1 Searching to satisfy her desire for a spiritual life, she traveled without warning to the Moravian village of Marienborn near Frankfurt, where she thrived in the tight-knit and sex-segregated community. The man she married, Jean-François Reynier, had grown up in Switzerland and was the descendent of French Protestants who had settled in Vevey on Lake Geneva. It was there, prior to marrying, he first encountered Pietism. His quest for spiritual fulfillment led him to Philadelphia, where he became an indentured servant to cover the costs of his travel, and learned some skills as a craftsman. He eventually fled his master and joined a Pietist community in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, where an internal struggle between his strong sense of individualism and his desire to feel a part of a spiritual community led to tensions between him and the other residents, and eventually a mental breakdown. He then supposedly (based on his autobiography) walked to Georgia where he joined yet another Pietist community and, after repaying his debts in Philadelphia, he joined the Moravians, returning to Europe in 1739 in the hope of meeting their founder, Count Zinzendorf.

In March 1740, he learned that he would be marrying a woman selected for him through the lot system, and heard that the Savior had a calling for [End Page 158] him in Suriname, then a Dutch colony. The couple experienced trying times in Suriname as their missionary activities among slaves caused tensions with slave owners. Frequent maroon attacks also made living in the colony difficult, as well as quarrels among the missionaries themselves. Here Fogleman makes an interesting point: these men and women sent to change the system of slavery discovered that the system was changing them, and the only way to make the mission economically viable was to work with that system. They also learned a lot about each other. Maria Barbara learned that her husband was bold and driven and had many talents, but that his “self-righteousness, impetuous behavior, and tendency to criticize those around him” made him many enemies (145). Jean-François learned that his wife, although poorly educated, was “pious, strong-willed, dedicated, and able to endure extreme hardship” (145).

In 1743, the couple fled Suriname for St. Thomas, another Dutch colony, and then settled for an extended period in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Maria Barbara thrived in the Moravian community they joined there, with its sex-segregated housing and its emphasis on work and piety; Jean-François did not, in part, apparently, because he suspected that his wife was involved sexually with the Moravian leader Zinzendorf. When Jean-François announced that he would be leaving the Moravians and asked his wife to join him, she faced a dilemma: should she follow and obey her husband as she had vowed to God, or remain among a community that provided her with a strong sense of spiritual belonging? She chose the latter, at first, but eventually rejoined her husband and the couple settled in Ebeneezer, Georgia, where they lived out the rest of their lives. Tensions remained in the marriage to the very end as indicated by their wills. Childless, Jean-François bequeathed much of his small amount of wealth to his nieces and nephews in Pennsylvania, while Maria Barbara bequeathed half of her money to the Ebeneezer church and school. Throughout her life, Maria Barbara demonstrated an ability to stand up to her domineering and often mentally unstable husband.

In Marriage and Revolution, Siân Reynolds traces the story of a much better known couple than the Reyniers: Jean Marie Roland (1734–1793) and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon (Roland) (1754–1793). Of the two, it was Madame Roland who has attracted the most attention, particularly in the decades following their deaths. Earlier accounts of her life were based largely on her prison memoirs, written as she awaited execution during the Terror.2 Reynolds’ story differs from other books on the Girondins in three ways. First, she makes use of a wide variety of other sources that allow access to Madame Roland’s life prior to her traumatic final months. Second, Reynolds focuses more on her childhood and the early years of her marriage than these earlier studies. Finally, the book considers fully the life and career of [End Page 159] Monsieur Roland, a man, Reynolds argues, whose career and ideas merit more attention and recognition among historians than has been the case. Until the appearance of Marriage and Revolution, there was only one old biography, in French, of Jean-Marie Roland, although his name comes up frequently in accounts of the Revolution and of the faction to which he is generally linked, the so-called Girondins. 3 This couple thus presents the unusual case where the wife’s “career” has overshadowed her husband’s. In exploring their marriage and their lives, Reynolds seeks to give Monsieur Roland credit for his many forgotten accomplishments, particularly during the intense years of the Revolution, and to demonstrate that their marriage, although troubled at the end, was based on love and mutual respect. Their relationship, Reynolds notes, resembled many marriages in the West today: it was freely chosen based on their love and admiration for each other and took place against the wishes of their families. Madame Roland, although younger than her husband, was a mature and independent woman in her own right who did not need to marry. Yet they respected each other’s intellectual and moral capacities and felt a strong, egalitarian bond as they worked for similar goals, both personal and political.

Reynolds makes clear that biographers and historians have created a distorted image of both of the Rolands. The numerous biographies of Madame Roland are based almost solely on her prison memoirs, a very particular period in her life to say the least, when she believed she was in love with a man other than her husband, and felt certain (correctly) that she was about to die. She depicted her husband as cold and their marriage as unhappy. By digging more deeply into the existing documents on the Rolands’ earlier lives, including their courtship and the first years of their marriage, Reynolds demonstrates that love and mutual respect brought them together. As intellectuals with a young child, they even shared childcare responsibilities, spending their days writing while their daughter played in the same room with them in a small Parisian apartment. Later, when they moved to the Roland family’s ancestral home in the countryside north of Lyon, they continued to work side-by-side on various projects. These included a plan hatched during the early years of the Revolution to found a kind of utopian community with like-minded men and women who would work and cooperate in a rural setting, anticipating the Saint-Simonian and Fourierist communities that would emerge two or three decades later. The egalitarian nature of their relationship and Monsieur Roland’s deep love and respect for his wife as an intellectual and as a writer (she edited and at times co-wrote many of his publications) contradicts our assumptions about the “typical” marriage of the eighteenth century, as well as many earlier accounts of this particular marriage.4 [End Page 160]

It is for how their lives ended that the couple is best known. They moved to Paris in 1792 and became deeply involved in political debates and activities, with Monsieur Roland named Minister of the Interior during the final months of the French Monarchy. Nearly every evening, they hosted gatherings at the Ministry with like-minded men (but rarely other women) to discuss events and plan strategies. It is from these activities that Madame Roland gained the reputation as a behind-the-scenes manipulator, calling the shots while her husband obeyed her every command. Reynolds convincingly argues that this image of Madame Roland originated in biased accounts of her life written during the nineteenth century by authors who wished to denounce her talents and activities as unwomanly, while simultaneously blaming her and others like her for the excesses and evils of the Revolution. In fact, however, while Madame Roland and her husband had always collaborated, he was an extremely competent and strong man himself, one who valued his wife’s opinions and advice, but who was fully capable of making decisions and taking actions on his own. Their tragic deaths—she on the guillotine and he committing suicide shortly afterward— have kept this impressive couple alive in our memories. As Reynolds’ book convincingly demonstrates, however, they deserve to be remembered for much more than their deaths; both were influential figures during a period of unprecedented change and political experimentation.

We know with hindsight that early nineteenth-century Russia was on the cusp of enormous change as well: the abolition of serfdom in 1863 impacted every institution and every level of society. The low-level gentry couple, Adrei Chikhachev (1798–1875) and Natalia Chernavina (1799–1866), examined in Katherine Pickering Antonova’s An Ordinary Marriage recognized that Russian society needed reform. They worked to make their serfs’ lives better through efforts at improvement, focusing on everything from agricultural production and housing to serf literacy and medical care. They also led rich social and cultural lives, reading voraciously and becoming deeply rooted in their local community and the church. Like the Reyniers, spiritual concerns drove Andrei Chikhachev, and like the Rolands, he was a writer. Similar to Fogelman’s Moravian couple, we know much more about the husband than the wife. What we know about Natalia Chernavina largely comes from accounts written by others, rarely her own perspective. Still, the author builds a convincing case that Natalia played a central, and in fact essential, role in running the family’s land holdings and managing their workforce, the serfs.

Antonova relies on a rich and valuable source base: the private correspondence and diaries of an “ordinary” provincial family. Andrei wrote copiously all his life, recording his thoughts and activities in diaries and [End Page 161] eventually publishing articles on agriculture in journals. He also invented something he called “letter notebooks,” which he used to correspond with his brother-in-law and other family members. They would take turns writing to each other by sending the notebook back and forth between their homes. Antonova makes brilliant use of these materials, but admits that we know frustratingly little about Andrei’s wife, except through his eyes. The author does all she can with the few letters and other traces that exist of Natalia’s thoughts and activities. In the end the book is more about the husband than his wife, however, and much of the book, despite its title, examines Andrei’s life and views more than the marriage itself. We know little about their relationship, aside from the basic facts of their marriage, and we know virtually nothing about Natalia’s views or feelings.

One of Antonova’s central findings addresses the question of how Russian families understood women’s versus men’s proper activities, and in this way her book directly enters into debates about conceptions of marital roles.5 She convincingly argues that for them, the “household” included the family’s large landholdings and hundreds of serfs. Thus Natalia’s activities could be defined as focused on the home, on the “interior,” while her husband, who spent most of his life literally inside the house, was engaged in the “outside” world through his intellectual pursuits. She led a suitably “feminine” existence focused on the family, even though she, in fact, spent a great deal more of her time moving about and dealing with larger numbers of people than her husband did. This way of conceptualizing their roles gave them a sense of propriety and morality. Antonova’s book, therefore, encourages us to look beyond the discourse of “public” and “private” to see how practices could reshape the meanings of those terms, and how the terms themselves could mean different things in different contexts.

The last book under consideration here, According to Our Hearts, stands apart from the others for its periods of focus, the early twentieth century and the present, and the type of story it tells: of a marriage that fell apart over the course of a lawsuit. It also differs in terms of its methods and goals. Angela Onwuachi-Willing, a legal scholar and law professor, explains the context of the marriage and the lawsuit that followed it in the first half of the book. In the process, she tells a riveting story full of both legal analysis and attention to the emotional states of the people involved. The second half then covers contemporary views on interracial marriage based on survey data and other more quantitative information from such sources as dating websites as well as oral interviews with interracial couples in the United States during the past decade or so. The resulting book is a rich and thought-provoking discussion of contemporary American views on race and how the legal system, to this day, continues to assume monoraciality as the norm for marriage—just as it assumes heterosexuality in married couples. [End Page 162]

The first part of the book draws attention to the complexities of defining “race” in the early twentieth century, when the “one-drop” rule continued to prevail. Alice Beatrice Jones’s mother was a white woman from England, her father a light-skinned man of mixed-race from Jamaica. Interracial marriages were fully legal in England, where her parents had married, as they were in New York State where Alice married Leonard Rhinelander in 1925. The annulment trial two months later took place not because she was “black” and he was “white,” but rather was brought on the grounds that she had hidden her “true” race from her young and innocent (and extremely rich) husband. Leonard did not seek to annul the marriage or to separate from Alice; rather it was his wealthy father who brought the case to trial while he passively sat through it.

Because the trial rested on the argument that Leonard had been “tricked” into believing Alice was white when she was in fact black, her defense attorney could have argued that she was white and thus disprove the accusation of deception. Instead, the defense argued that she was black, and that her husband had known about and accepted her “race” from the beginning. In order to prove that her racial background was impossible to miss, Alice appeared before the all-male white jury with bare breasts and exposed legs. In the end, the jury found in her favor; the marriage was not annulled and a few years later, Leonard divorced her. Neither married again, and Alice, who died in 1989, continued to use the last name of Rhinelander, which appears on her headstone, suggesting that for her at least this marriage was a true love match. Both suffered emotionally during and after the trial, and Leonard, who died young, was ostracized by the upper-class white society in which he was raised. He had, as Onwuachi-Willing argues, betrayed his people “by actually enjoying and cherishing the company and intimate love of Alice, a colored woman” (205).

The second half of According to Our Hearts discusses contemporary views on interracial marriage, focusing on the social and legal difficulties that remain for couples that cross the color line. Based on interviews with twenty-one interracial couples (sixteen opposite-sex couples and five same-sex couples), as well as survey data and information generated from on-line dating sites, Onwuachi-Willing sheds light on the attitudes and behavior shown towards these families, particularly with regard to their children. Stories abound of black mothers of light-skinned children being taken for nannies, and of mixed-race couples automatically receiving separate checks when they eat in restaurants. Although some may believe that the United States has moved beyond this kind of racism, the cases examined here reveal that social and cultural forms of prejudice continue. As so many recent events in the United States have demonstrated—from police shootings to college fraternities singing racist songs—race matters in American [End Page 163] society, and that continues to be the case in our most intimate relationships as well. When mixed-race couples leave the privacy of their homes, they encounter that fact on a daily basis, and then bring those experiences back home with them, causing marital tensions that might otherwise not exist. In a legal system that does not recognize the legality of same-sex marriages, interracial homosexual couples experience multiple levels of invisibility, and thus face an even steeper uphill battle for full legal and social acceptance.

One of the most important arguments presented by Onwuachi-Willing focuses on the problems that result from a legal system that is based on “the continued assumption of monoraciality among families” (198). These assumptions become visible when interracial couples look for housing and struggle to find neighborhoods where they will feel comfortable and accepted. Legally, too, they are in a difficult situation that Onwuachi-Willing terms “placelessness” (18). Title VIII, which protects people from housing discrimination based on race, forces claimants to present themselves as either black or white. Similarly, in laws regarding employment discrimination, an employee who suffers discrimination as a result of the race of his or her spouse has no legal standing because the law does not recognize prejudice by association, only against the individual employee.

Taken together, these four books on marriage as a historical and contemporary social, legal, and religious institution encourage reflection on the variety of ways in which people have lived as married couples. For decades, women’s history has clarified how the patriarchal system that gave all rights to husbands over their wives, with wives treated as legal minors, kept women in a dependent position unable to act on their own behalf in many matters. Historians have similarly assumed that interracial unions were based on clear power dynamics, with white men exploiting their black female sexual partners or wives. These four books add layers of complexity to these assumptions. We find women who could stand up to their husbands, running households that contained hundreds of human beings (serfs) in the case of provincial Russia in the early nineteenth century, and holding their own in spiritual matters in the case of the Moravian couple who traversed the Atlantic in the eighteenth century. Madame Roland was certainly the intellectual equal of her husband, and their marriage seems to have been based on surprisingly egalitarian terms when placed into the context of late eighteenth-century France. It is only in the story of the Rhinelanders that we see the legal and social system unambiguously turning Alice into a victim, not because her husband chose to exploit her, but because of his own milieu and its limitations. Alice suffered the consequences of her love and her willingness to push the boundaries of acceptable racial norms for the remainder of her life, as did Leonard. Although interracial couples today suffer much less, the legal system’s assumption of monoraciality continues [End Page 164] to make it difficult for these couples to protect themselves when discrimination takes place. The laws and cultural assumptions regarding marriage have certainly evolved a great deal during the past three centuries, and especially during the past fifty years or so, but work remains to be done. Learning more about the lived experiences of couples who struggled against such norms in earlier eras can help us wage that battle.

Denise Z. Davidson

DENISE Z. DAVIDSON is professor of history at Georgia State University. She is the author of France after Revolution: Urban Life, Gender, and the New Social Order (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007) and co-author, with Anne Verjus, of Le Roman conjugal: Chroniques de la vie familiale à l’époque de la Révolution et de l’Empire (Seyssel, France: Champ Vallon Press, 2011). Her articles have appeared in French History, French Historical Studies, Annales Historiques de la Révolution française, The Journal of Family History, and The William and Mary Quarterly. She is currently writing a book that makes use of private correspondence to discuss bourgeois families and their survival strategies during and after the French Revolution.


1. A note on names: these books use first names to avoid the awkwardness and confusion that would result otherwise. This review will as well, except with regard to the Roland couple whose names are very similar. In their case, I refer to them as Monsieur and Madame Roland. This language may appear sexist, but will hopefully avoid confusion. This review essay was commissioned and written prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision of June 2015 legalalizing gay marriage. That new legal framework, which has shifted the groungs of contemporary debate, is not reflected in my analysis of these books.

2. For the most recent biography in English, see Gita May, Madame Roland and the Age of Revolution (New York, N.Y.: Columbia University press, 1970).

3. For additional books on the Girondins, see Gary Kates, The Cercle Social, the Girondins and the French Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985); and M. J. Sydenham, The Girondins (London: Athlone, 1961).

4. For one recent publication that uses the couple as an example of an “unhappy” marriage, see Dena Goodman, “Marriage Choice and Marital Success: Reasoning About Marriage, Love, and Happiness,” in Family, Gender, and Law in Early Modern France, ed. Suzanne Desan and Jeffrey Merrick (University Park, P.A.: Penn State University Press, 2009).

5. For debates about conceptions of marital roles, see Patricia Branca, “Image and Reality: The Myth of the Idle Victorian Woman” in Mary Hartman and Lois Banner, eds. Clio’s Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women (New York: Octagon Press, 1976); M. Jeanne Peterson, “No Angels in the House: The Victorian Myth and the Paget Women,” American Historical Review vol. 89 (1984): 677–708; Bonnie Smith, Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoisies of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981); Lenore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Robert B. Shoemaker, Gender in English Society 1650–1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? (London: Logman, 1998); Linda Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” Journal of American History vol. 75 (1988): 9–39; and John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). [End Page 165]