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  • Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660–1857
  • Philippe Rosenberg
Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660–1857. By Elizabeth Foyster (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005) 282 pp. $70.00 cloth $27.99 paper

Over the past decade, scholars working on both sides of the Atlantic have done much to advance our understanding of the place of violence in the histories of the family and gender relations. Impressionistic tableaux have given way to a host of studies that have capitalized on feminist scholarship and more recent concerns with sensibility, reform movements, and the dynamics of class.

Foyster's study is best viewed as a synthesis and critique of this expanding field. She focuses on spousal abuse of the nonlethal kind, or more accurately, on social and institutional responses to it. Foyster seeks to uncover the spectrum of familial, communal, legal, and ideological pressures that shaped people's encounters with domestic violence during the two centuries of her study. Rachael Norcott and Mary Veitch, whose experiences bookend most of the chapters, faced similar difficulties in extricating themselves from violent households, though one sued for separation in 1666, and the other did so in 1837. Of the countless British women who fell victim to abuse during these two centuries, only a few went beyond the informal mediation that sought to keep couples together. Their reticence owed to the fact that their suits for separation, argued before the Court of Arches and similar tribunals, required them to prove that their husbands had not simply exercised a widely sanctioned prerogative to discipline their dependents, but engaged in long-term patterns of cruelty.

The changes between 1666 and 1837 are what require careful explanation. Foyster is skeptical of narratives that involve broad, usually liberating, transformations within short periods of time—especially when they coincide too neatly with academic fashions. More pessimistic, she makes the case for slow progressions marked by continuities rather than breakthroughs. During the time frame that Foyster examines, observers continually probed women's responses to spousal abuse and discriminated between the blameworthy and the innocent on that basis. Kin and neighbors paid little heed to a putative rise of Victorian anonymity and kept on intervening in private dramas as they had in earlier times. Meanwhile, the cadre of physicians and policemen who took up the problem of marital cruelty by the late eighteenth century hardly made a dent in its prevention.

Foyster shows that new legislation had similarly ambiguous effects. [End Page 275] The Custody of Infants Act of 1839 failed to displace a culturally instilled indifference to the suffering of children in abusive homes, even though the cult of motherhood now allowed a few women to obtain custody. The Divorce Act of 1857 retains a misleading reputation for liberalizing women's access to divorce. In reality, the Act focused on adultery, remained neutral on the question of marital cruelty, and made it easier for husbands to leave their wives than the reverse.

In Foyster's view, the most substantive developments in this period stemmed from the efforts of the "respectable" classes to set themselves apart from lower-downs. Once physical violence in the home became a mark of working-class "backwardness," traumatized women who displayed symptoms of depression or hysteria (considered appropriate to middle-class sensibilities) were taken more seriously. More to the point, they were able to challenge abusive partners, even when cruelty assumed a mental or economic, rather than physical, form.

Foyster's approach to marital violence is rigorous and broad-ranging. She is especially successful in showing why domestic violence is best approached one case at a time, in context-sensitive terms, with reference to the ebb and flow of competing, but fairly stable, attitudes. This is a sensible perspective that could eventually serve as the springboard for revealing comparisons between marital violence in Britain before 1857 and experiences elsewhere in the world under analogous legal regimes.

Beyond her impressive inventory of court cases, Foyster considers novels, didactic advice, parliamentary debates, and nineteenth-century reform movements. But her interlocutors are clearly concentrated in one field—British social history—that remains wedded to sociological empiricism as its reigning methodology. Her tendency to privilege this one idiom...


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pp. 275-276
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