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Ginger Frost begins her arresting study with perhaps the most famous Victorian couple to “live in sin,” George Henry Lewes and George Eliot. Eliot’s brother Isaac broke all communication with the author until she married John Cross, following Lewes’s death, a quarter of a century later. In the light of Frost’s research, we can no longer take Isaac’s disapproval of his sister’s non-consecrated union as typifying contemporary responses to cohabitation. Many Victorians were remarkably tolerant about such relationships. No less than Queen Victoria, exemplar of respectable family values, let the novelist know how she enjoyed her work and solicited her autograph. The Queen of Holland was unabashed to be seen with Lewes and praised his writings, while adding, “as to your wife’s – all the world admires them” (1). Apparently, she saw the couple as husband and wife, as did most of the other cohabitees Frost describes, all of whom believed themselves married in all but name. Even then, they took a shared name, as did Mrs. Lewes.

We tend to regard the nineteenth century as a period of marital conformity, following Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (1753) which sought to regularize marriage by abolishing the binding power of betrothals and the authority of the church courts. Except for Quakers and Jews, all weddings had to take place in Anglican churches, though opposition from Dissenters led to civil registration after 1836. Both partners must be over twenty-one or have their guardian’s consent, while the banns should be declared three times before the ceremony. And yet, finds Frost, “the century brought not so much a new definition of marriage as a destabilising of it” (233). In part, this was because many contemporaries struggled to understand the niceties of the law. The Justices of the Peace brimmed with queries from magistrates revealing their confusion over the status of marriages performed outside the country or between different faiths, and the ignorance of parishioners over marriages of affinity or the maintenance of illegitimate children. Non-compliance could be deliberate too. When Church and State stood between a marriage of “true minds”, many went ahead regardless, as did a Manchester publican: “My wife was dead, and I could not be so well suited in my house as to marry her sister; therefore, I do not recognize any law that says I shall not” (54). Though “the Hardwicke Act restricted the definition of marriage,” concludes Frost, “in the resulting century, the English slowly widened it again, first by practice and later by law” (233).

Frost’s analysis of how the English chipped away at the codes of marriage is based on nearly one thousand cohabiting couples. She divides these into three main groups. First were those who could not marry because of the prohibition on marriages of affinity or because they were unhappily wed but unable divorce. These cohabitees tended to receive the most sympathy, especially when they appeared loving and committed. As one businessman testified of his affinal union: “I have never found any possible inconvenience arising from it. . . I have rather had commendation” (64). Support came even from upholders of the law. Dismissing a vicar’s complaint about an elderly man who married his sister-in-law outside his parish, the Home Secretary refused to back legal action: “I am afraid we shall be laughed at if we prosecute this old couple. . . What harm have they done?” (57). The book is full of such heart-warming instances of acceptance which challenge stereotypical views of Victorian priggishness over gender and morality.

More likely to raise a disapproving eyebrow were those in Frost’s second group who maintained adulterous unions for reasons “of indifference, lack of social pressure, or class concerns” (3). Overwhelmingly these cohabitees came from the very poor, the criminal classes, and the demi-monde, either careless of respectability or unable to afford it. A minority of the poor did not marry. While their numbers fell from a peak of ten to twenty percent in the 1820s, around ten percent of couples continued not to marry, estimates Frost. Though they did not uphold the sanctity of marriage, neither did most of these adulterous couples challenge gender roles; “In fact, the power relations in these groups showed that the sexual double standard was universal, since the preference for cohabitation was not equal between the genders” (123).

The sexual double standard was highlighted by contemporary fiction, particularly in its focus on the cross-class couple. The experience of such lovers frequently bore out Elizabeth Gaskell’s intuition in Mary Barton (1848) that women had most to lose when irregular unions fell apart but degradation and death were not the inevitable fate of all mistresses. While the workhouse awaited the abandoned, penniless mother and her illegitimate children, some women moved up the social ladder and benefitted financially through adulterous relations; something the contemporary novel could not acknowledge (148-9). Such relationships could be stable, as was the twenty-year union between Friedrich Engels and the working-class Mary Burns (156-7).

Engels is an example of Frost’s third group: the radical cohabitees. While some freethinkers, socialists and feminists, like Engels, took a principled stand against marriage, in general only those middle-class people who could not marry lived outside of wedlock. Strikingly, Frost finds that continuity rather than change characterized radical attitudes towards marriage and “free unions,” which derived from arguments made since the early modern period. While rejecting its legal status, most radicals promoted their own models of marriage based on reason and morality rather than challenging monogamy. While some late-Victorian feminists opted for celibacy, they were unusual; marriage was by far the most usual choice.

Frost draws on a wealth of evidence from memoirs and letters, interviews by social investigators like Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth, witness statements presented to the Royal Commissions on Marriage of 1848 and 1912, and oral testimonies collected by the historian Elizabeth Roberts. With these sources, Frost aims to let cohabitees “speak for themselves”; yet, one of her most important conclusions is that we need “to look at what people did as well as what they said, to understand social change” (231). Most illuminating for me, therefore, are the parts of the book where she analyzes attitudes to cohabitation highlighted by prosecutions for violence, affinity and consanguinity, bigamy and desertion. These reveal remarkable inconsistencies in the operation of the courts and of gender ideology. Cohabiting couples and those abused or deserted by their partners might receive considerable sympathy in court. Though Victorian justice could be “patriarchal, class-biased, and moralistic . . . it was not invariably so, and even when it was, the results were unpredictable” (32). Many judges and justices were as intent on policing male as female behaviour – at least in the working classes – and often favored the woman, regardless of her character, over the partner who failed to marry her properly. In this way, the courts upheld traditional community expectations that a man should “do right by a woman he had ‘ruined’” (19).

The bias towards women is borne out by Frost’s examination of 304 bigamy cases in which four-fifths of defendants were men. Conviction rates for men (85%) were significantly higher than for women (68%) (74). Three quarters of Frost’s bigamy cases involved couples where both parties were working-class and the courts often acknowledged that poverty was a major factor in their lack of marital status. As one judge found, sentencing a man for three days only, “if the prisoner had been in a higher rank of life, he would have been divorced, and then he could have been legally married to the second person” (78). Bigamy cases expose the pragmatic approach of working-class men and women to marriage: “Men needed housekeepers and women needed providers. . . Poor people did not have the luxury of standing on principle. If the first spouse did not work out, they got another, whether the law recognised them as spouses as not” (110).

One of the many strengths of Frost’s book is that she endeavors to establish the extent as well as the nature of irregular unions. On average there were 98 bigamy trials a year in England and Wales between 1857 and 1904, but over the century sentencing became lighter (72). In the 1860s, 25% of defendants received a month or less; by the 1890s, the proportion had risen to 37% (74). Both the decline in bigamy cases and the severity of punishment point to the increasingly tolerant treatment of marital non-conformity, yet the relaxation in attitudes does not appear to have diminished the ideal of marriage. Far from “self-divorces” showing contempt for matrimony, “bigamies were strong evidence of people’s attachment to marriage” (18). Frost’s conclusions are persuasive because rather than simply cherry-picking the juiciest cases from The Proceedings of the Old Bailey or The Times, she presents us too with humdrum cases from the magistrates and police courts, from the Yorkshire Gazette and Lancaster Guardian sampled every five years (6-8, 48). As keyword searches enable us to speed-research from our laptops, Frost’s meticulous investigation reminds us of the pleasures and rewards of systematic scholarship. Manchester University Press should be congratulated for bringing out in affordable paperback a serious and highly readable monograph which now can be enjoyed by undergraduates and their teachers.

In keeping with the spirit of this book, we should end with the words of its subjects. Edith Lanchester and James Sullivan, members of the Social Democratic Federation, differed from most of Frost’s couples in that Edith came from a higher social class than James and took the lead in refusing to marry for, she contended, marriage “is really a private concern of the individual, binding only by mutual love and esteem, and terminable by mutual consent” (209). Their case has been used often to illustrate Victorian misogyny and patriarchy – Edith’s brothers had her committed to an asylum for her transgression – though after Frost’s study we must question the representativeness of this case. The couple were reunited and remained together but, according to their daughter, Elsa, the union was not entirely happy; “In defying convention they were chained by it” (210). As Frost judiciously points out, the daughter may have been wrong in her assessment and yet Elsa’s words suggest another story waiting to be told – that of the children of unconventional relationships who, so often, rebel against their parents’ non-conformity.