When I started reading Marcia A. Zug’s intro to Buying a Bride, in which she states her intentions to prove the positive aspects of mail-order marriage, I was pretty sceptical. Amazingly, by the end of the book, Zug had me convinced.
In Buying a Bride, Zug explores the history of mail-order marriage, beginning with the first 1619 “Tobacco Wives” of the Jamestown colony, and following through all the way to modern day. Her definition of mail-order brides is strict: the women having come voluntarily is a particularly important point. Mail-order marriage is often equated with the trafficking of women; Zug makes it clear that she is excluding those cases from her history.
Even when women have volunteered to travel as mail-order brides, the traditional narrative is that the system perpetuates the commodification of women, and that it takes advantage of helpless and desperate women. Zug sets out to prove instead that mail-order marriage is an empowering and beneficial system for both men and women—and for the most part, she succeeds.
From the start, Buying a Bride is a richly-researched and absolutely fascinating historical text. Zug has unearthed facts about the first mail-order brides that seem almost inconceivable: the marital (and even, to an extent, sexual) rights and freedoms that these women demanded and received make marriage in the Jamestown colony an almost unrecognisable institution from its parallel in England at the same time.
Buying a Bride is so jam-packed with captivating anecdotes that it’s all but impossible to read without constantly pausing to pass on your new-found knowledge to literally anybody sitting near you. (A 1687 bride refusing to promise to obey her husband in her wedding vows was a particularly amazing story, considering it wasn’t until 1922 that this word was dropped by the Church of England!) Zug has collected a wealth of primary material to bring her picture of the early mail-order brides to life—and her insistence on the benefits of these marriages is catching.
Zug was clearly enthralled by her discoveries about mail-order marriage (into which she originally began research in order to prove its harmfulness)—but this enthusiasm doesn’t always shine through her writing. It’s such fascinating material, but the delivery is, in many places, disappointingly dry.
The later chapters also lose a little steam. While Zug’s claims in the opening sections are wonderfully convincing, the sections on modern-day mail-order marriage feel a little thin on the ground.
Marcia A. Zug’s Buying a Bride is full of fascinating slices of history that flip the traditionally-told narrative of mail-order marriages on their head—but the book’s sometimes-dull delivery sorely lets it down. If you’re a history geek who gets all hot under the collar when faced with a new history text book, then this should be right up your alley; if, like me, you prefer your history wrapped up in a more engaging narrative, you might be better off simply reading about the best bits online.
Buying a Bride is now out in both the UK and the US!
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.