Saturday, November 24, 2012

When marriage was "redefined" (sic)

And he shall prick that annual blister,
Marriage with deceased wife's sister.

Have you heard about the time when civilisation collapsed because the restrictions on who could marry whom were relaxed? When marriage was "redefined"?

No, neither have I.

It was the social issue that raged throughout the Victorian era - could a widower marry his sister-in-law?

It had been restricted under the old Marriage Acts but then was fully outlawed under the 1835 Act. But almost immediately a movement sprang up to remove the restriction and allow widowers to marry their sisters-in-law. The reasons why they might wished to do so could vary considerably - at one end of society high levels of maternal mortality meant that in many working class households unmarried woman found themselves taking on the maternal role from their deceased sister. At the other end it was common for families without male-line heirs to pass property through marriage and if the first daughter died young then remarrying her widower to another daughter would preserve the arrangements and keep the property within her family.

(Julian Fellowes, if you're reading this, please do not use this as a plot for a future series of Downton Abbey.)

The debate lasted many years with the first bill to change the law being presented in Parliament in 1842. Thereafter the issue came back almost every year, sparking the above verse in Iolanthe. In part the opposition stemmed from the view that marriage isn't just the union of two individuals but of their families as well. But it also stemmed heavily from religious interpretations, with many arguing it was wrong to go against the traditional Church list of forbidden unions.

Sound familiar?

Many widowers found themselves in this position, but perhaps the grandest was Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse, the widower of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. After his wife's death in 1878, there was hope of his marrying her younger sister Princess Beatrice. This led to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) making a rare Royal intervention in the House of Lords when he gave support to the reform but it still failed to pass. The head of the Church of England described the opponents as "those bigots".

There were many further attempts that were blocked despite clear majorities in favour in the Commons, although the Lords was a stonier prospect. One such attempt fell in 1902 due to a filibuster by the "Hughligans", a ginger group of young Conservative MPs centred around Lord Hugh Cecil and including Winston Churchill. Notably at the time they were all bachelors.

Eventually the law was reformed by the passage of the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act in 1907, although the equivalent provision for widows to marry their brothers-in-law wasn't passed until 1921. The Act was straightforward in allowing the marriages, but also made provision to allow individual clergy to decline to perform such marriages themselves (and enable them to allow another clergyman in the same diocese to perform them in their own church or chapel).

Does anyone now find the idea of a widower being able to marry his sister-in-law objectionable? Who actually argues about this issue at all? Has the institution of marriage suffered because of this change?

And this is hardly the only reform whereby marriage is defined differently by religion and civil law. Divorcees cannot get married in some churches and only with special dispensation in others, yet the law did not stop Camilla marrying Charles in a registry office.

Let's hope the next reform of the marriage laws doesn't take another sixty-five years.


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