The wedding dress was ‘very simple, classic, elegant, strapless with a fitted waist and extended chapel train,’ according to the bride’s wedding planner. The bridesmaids’ dresses were long, slender and black, ‘very in now – not for the bride of course,’ he adds. Six hundred guests clicked on to weddingchannel.com and generously bought Lismore Tall crystal by Waterford and Solitaire china by Lenox. And then, four days before the wedding, the bride disappeared.

Photographs of a startled-looking young woman flashed on the television news and front pages of newspapers across the country. My sister studied the face carefully before diagnosing ‘thyroid. Graves’s disease: bulging eyes, extreme mood swings, triggered by stress’? When I read that the devout Baptist fiance hadn’t realised his fiancee was missing until the Braves’ baseball game on television was over, I said: ‘Runaway bride.’ Sensitive nephews were more fearful, but when Jennifer Wilbanks turned up four days later at a payphone 2,000 miles away in New Mexico, everyone was relieved. Now she’s been charged with a felony for ‘making false statements’ – and a misdemeanour – ‘falsely reporting a crime’.

I think about Miss Milbanks as I scan wedding lists at John Lewis, David Mellor and Daunt Books (the complete Pevner’s Architectural Guides, 57 vols., and Bean’s Trees & Shrubs in the British Isles, 4 vols). It’s the wedding season and mantlepieces round the land are dressed in thick, creamy cards engraved in hope.

What isn’t on the lists is a new book called Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, that tells us everything we didn’t know about matrimony. Marriage – that modest union of husband and wife – is only about 200 years old, and the ideal of breadwinner husband, homemaker wife and their 2.2 children was a historical accident, triggered by the yearning to nest at the end of the Depression and the Second World War.

The author, Stephanie Coontz, says that the reason marriage is under so much strain is because now it is based on love, which is inherently unstable. When two people are required to be ‘everything to each other, when love in a marriage is an obligation rather than a bonus, the risks of disappointment and failure are high.’ Prof Coontz contends that the love-based nuclear ‘traditional’ marriage emerged in Europe towards the end of the 18th century when the spread of the market economy enabled people to live on wages. Until then, marriage was ‘the only way to get in-laws, and since the dawn of civilisation, getting in-laws has been one of marriage’s most important functions.’

No one recorded this momentous sea change better than Jane Austen. She never mentioned the Napoleonic wars: she was on to something much more earth-shaking. By Victorian times, marriage had become the ideal. Queen Victoria planted the seeds of today’s wedding industry when she ‘broke with convention and walked down the aisle to musical accompaniment, wearing pure white instead of the traditional silver-and-white gown and coloured cape.’

Coontz argues that when laws gave women the same rights as men, and when the status of ‘illegitimate’ children was abolished, marriage could no longer be sustained as a central institution in our society. The armada of invitations on our mantlepiece is a sociological survey of co-habiting couples and ‘blended’ families. But for all that, I admire the dreamy soulmates. I’ll eat my Freddie Fox if there’s a runaway bride in the bunch.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 9, 2005.