03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Great Marriage Debate (In Victorian Britain)

In a recent book, Incest & Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England, anthropologist Adam Kuper describes one of the most protracted political battles that gripped Victorian Britain.

It revolved around a provision in the law that prohibited marriage between a man and any of the sisters of his deceased wife. The reason behind that ban derived from a highly questionable biblical interpretation that regarded husband and wife as "one flesh." Therefore, the sisters of a man's wife became his like own sisters. Marrying one of them after the death of a wife would be incestuous.

At that time, when many women died young in childbirth or from other illnesses, men often turned to their wives' sisters for help in the household and marriage was often seen as a convenient and desirable solution for all parties. Such marriages were common in the United States and in British colonies where they were legal.

Lifting the ban in Britain, Kuper writes, was first mooted in 1842 and the debate raged for 65 years until Parliament finally passed the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act of 1907. (A ban against women marrying the brothers of their deceased husbands remained in place until 1921).

During that 65-year battle, associations were set up for and against the ban, and many heated pamphlets were issued on both sides. Beginning in the 1860s, bills were introduced annually to get rid of the prohibition. Eighteen times, the reform passed the House of Commons only to be knocked down by the House of Lords where bishops led the opposition.

A website, Anglicans Online, tells us: "The debates were solemn rather than acrimonious in tone: members quoted Latin to each other, even Greek, and the meaning of Leviticus xviii, verse 18, was deeply pondered."

Opponents of the reform included Gladstone, who grimly warned that the "purity of sisterly love" would be threatened. Winston Churchill spoke against the bill in 1903, saying that when a man and a woman married, "they became as one" and therefore marrying the sister of one's wife was as absurd as marrying oneself.

Dr. Edward Bouverie Pusey, a leading theologian, warned that the very sacrament of marriage was at stake. "Those who deny that the sister is akin to the husband, must deny that the husband and wife are really one, and so at once strike at the very root of the holiness and mysteriousness of marriage," he argued.

The parliamentary stalemate even entered the popular culture. In Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe" (1882) the Queen of the Fairies threatens to have her agent drive a whole series of measures through the House of Lords, including this one.

"He shall prick that annual blister,
"Marriage with a deceased wife's sister."

In the end, of course, the law passed and today that heated debate is remembered only by historians.

Anglicans Online comments: "The thunder and those scruples are long gone -- and now the passion only surfaces in yellowed letters in archives that document broken families and ruined lives. The Church survives, despite scruples and sexuality. It really does." And so does marriage.

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