Wedding bells and blues

A History of the Wife

Marilyn Yalom <em>Rivers Oram Press/Pandora, 408pp, £20</em>

ISBN 08635842

Having written from the point of view of the mistress, I had hoped that this book, by the author of A History of the Breast, might explain why so many women still want to be wives, embarking optimistically on marriages - or remarriages - despite discouraging divorce statistics. From what was once primarily a property transaction to our modern ideal of equal companionship, Marilyn Yalom examines changing notions about love and sex. But she fails to address precisely why so many people still want to formalise their union, to involve church and/or state in what is essentially a private commitment.

Apologists for marriage will claim that it involves a wider commitment to family ties and to society as a whole, but do couples really consider all that when they marry? Do they think about the implications of acquiring extra elderly relations, for instance, or a whole slew of people who will want to be visited at Christmas? And, if they do, how come it doesn't put them off? The closest Yalom gets to answering these questions is her observation that most people like to do what is expected of them.

She stops short of examining the modern phenomenon of a popular culture, on both sides of the Atlantic, which promotes the idea that all women - from the dreary Bridget Jones to the bright sophisticates of Sex and the City - want a husband and will not be happy until they have one. I wanted Yalom to reveal whether single women in New York are really so desperate to be married. More importantly, what effect do such images have on women? And who is behind the peddling of this conservative agenda? Is Candace Bushnell really a man in the pay of George W Bush?

Although Yalom's book might more accurately have been titled A History of the American Wife, it is packed with fascinating snippets from women's diaries and letters. The most interesting part deals with women settlers on the plains of America, those wives who either made the Oregon trail with their husbands and children or stayed behind in the east for years, until summoned to join their menfolk. Their endurance coexisted with conventional wisdom about the "weaker sex" and the "little woman".

Yalom argues that "till death us do part" means something very different in terms of today's life expectancy. "Serial monogamy" was not an invention of the late 20th century; widowhood, rather than divorce, was the cause. Men in particular have always been very quick to remarry after the death of a mate and, throughout history, large numbers of children have had to undergo the trauma of becoming stepchildren.

There can be no doubt that the lot of the wife (at least in the west) has improved dramatically over the centuries, even though true equality has yet to be attained and some women still feel imprisoned in the role. The "rule of thumb" - by which a wife could be beaten by her husband provided that the switch he used was no thicker than a man's thumb - no longer applies, though domestic violence, like the poor, is always with us.

It continues to amaze me, however, that each year so many young women blithely, even enthusiastically, choose to be led down the aisle to be "given away" to another man, whose name they adopt, and on whose arm they are led back out. However romantic and sweet it all sounds, however good the music and colour- coordinated the flowers, the underlying symbolism of an exchange of property cannot be avoided. While not wanting to spoil anyone's "big day", A History of the Wife should be required reading for all brides-to-be.

Victoria Griffin is the author of The Mistress (Bloomsbury, £7.99)