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Living in Sin: Cohabiting as Husband and Wife in Nineteenth-Century England (review)
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Living in Sin, a comprehensive study of heterosexual cohabiting couples, is also a study of legal marriage itself. As Ginger S. Frost points out, cohabiting couples were a small minority but “those on the margins of society offer a unique perspective on ‘the norm’” (2). Through an account rich in individual stories, she illuminates cohabitation’s similarity to and difference from legal marriage.

Most cohabiting couples would have preferred to be married. Even though legal marriage was patriarchal in structure and unfavourable to women, cohabitation left a woman and her children more vulnerable than did legal marriage. Frost establishes that most cohabiting couples presented themselves as married and wished to be treated as if they were. Many couples did receive support from family and community, but many did not. Acceptance was more likely if the couple were poor and working class. Middle–class families and communities often did not accept a couple or their children, and when property was involved, the “illegitimate” children often suffered in the case of desertion (usually by the father) or death.

Frost’s most interesting points concern gender. She effectively demonstrates that cohabitation did not in most cases involve a rejection of the patriarchal nature of marriage. Most women involved in cohabiting relationships were not romantic, adventuresome people who wished to practice “free love” or behave as women independent of men. In consequence, the great majority of cohabiting couples conformed to conventional Victorian gender prescriptions. Thus, even though the woman in a cohabiting relationship had not taken vows of obedience and the husband did not have legal rights to the children, women and men acted as if these circumstances prevailed.

Frost deals extensively with marriage, cohabitation, and the law. She provides a comprehensive summary of the law itself, beginning with Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. She also effectively explores court records involving cohabiting couples, a method that James Hammerton employed so effectively in Cruelty and Companionship (1992). Most of Frost’s couples were working class. She concludes that the traditional view of English criminal justice as “patriarchal, and class biased, and moralistic” does not always apply (32). Judges were as anxious to protect common-law wives as lawful wives. Justice Denman, for example, when sentencing George Bowling to die in 1890 for beating Eliza Nightingale to death with a hammer, repudiated any acceptance of male violence: “Over and over again . . . we see the terrible state of things which indicates a sort of belief on the part of men who are living with women either as their wives or as you are living with the deceased, they have a power of life and death over them.” Denman concluded by saying that Bowling was “unworthy of the name of brute” (qtd. in Frost 39). But judges tended to be more sympathetic if the woman was or had been “womanly.” While they rejected flagrant male violence, they did not approve of women who “cursed, fought back or drank” (34).

Frost divides her cohabiting couples into three groups. First there were those who cohabited because they were faced with a legal barrier to marriage. One or both of the partners might be married and unable to obtain a divorce. George Eliot’s union with George Henry Lewes is a famous and much analyzed example. Lewes could not get a divorce on the grounds that he had condoned his wife’s adultery. As a writer, Eliot was inspired and daring, but the real woman Mary Ann Evans would have preferred the safety of marriage. She took Lewes’s name, perceived their bond to be binding, and suffered pain when family members and her wider social network rejected her as “living in sin.” It is clear that Eliot suffered more than Lewes did.

The complicated laws concerning “affinity and consanguinity” prevented others from legally marrying. As Frost demonstrates, it was the law relating to “affinity” and especially the strictures against a man marrying his deceased wife’s sister that caused the most problems, and at the same time elicited the most sympathy, because such relationships were generally viewed as acceptable. “Aunts were natural caregivers” (61), Frost comments. If they could afford it, such couples often went abroad to marry, for...