Lord Scandal is Out!
In LORD SCANDAL I have a divorcee as a heroine. The whole thing started with my reading about Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau (the infamous “Madame X” in the painting by John Singer Sargent; see it further down the page) in Strapless by Deborah Davis. The painting caused a furor in Victorian Europe when it was put on display, due to the fallen strap of her gown. It was seen as scandalous and her husband’s family was extremely upset by it. Sargent repainted the portrait with both straps firmly in place, but the damage was done. Gautreau never took possession of the portrait, and it remained with Sargent until his death (lucky for us, or it might have been destroyed). Reading about the real life scandal made me wonder what might have happened to an 18th century wife under such circumstances . . . yes this is how my mind works. Everything feeds the churning creative monster.
Unlike today, divorce was nearly unheard of in Georgian England (the sources I’ve read state one a year at the most). It was prohibitively expensive to pursue and required an act of parliament (can you imagine having to push your divorce though your country’s highest governmental body?). And just because you could afford one and wanted one didn’t mean you got one (The Prince of Wales attempted to divorce his wife[and with good reason from what I can tell], but his bill of divorcement failed, mostly due to his unpopularity). To further complicate matters, there were very few reasons one could pursue a divorce for, criminal conversation (oft stated as “crim. con.” in period texts) being the main one. In this context, “conversation” means sex outside of the marriage, and only applies to the wife. The wrinkle for the husband was that “the other man” had to be arrested, charged, and convicted before he could pursue a divorce. This meant, that in actual practice, if the lover were wealthy enough to simply leave England (or if the wife’s family was wealthy enough to pay him to do so), there was nothing the husband could do. There was no way to convict the man in absentia (which also means that if the husband killed him a duel he couldn’t turn around and divorce his wife too!).
Whether the woman’s family stood behind her, as well as how wealthy and influential they were, was also of vital importance. Whatever resources she had brought into the marriage (dowry) might be returned to her family or used for her maintenance, or she might be left utterly destitute. To add to her troubles, the husband could specify in the bill of divorcement that she was not allowed to marry her seducer, so even that path to salvation was denied her (and she would certainly never be allowed to see her children).
The most common thing for a couple to do was have a legal separation. Everything would be sorted out and set down in some kind of legal agreement, and then the parties would carry on with their separate lives. This option left the wife with her reputation tarnished, but not ruined (her social standing was usually vastly diminished), but it prevented either party from remarrying (a real problem if the husband was still in need of an heir). This was the option most likely to have been pursued by a wife whose husband abused her (and would have required the backing of her family, or some very powerful friends), or a husband who simply couldn’t deal with his wife’s infidelities, but couldn’t afford a divorce (or didn't want to deal with the major scandal such a course would cause).
One of the things that was not really an option in most cases was an annulment (forget all those romance plots you've read where one character offers this "out" to the other should their marriage of convenience not work out). Basically the only reasons you could obtain an annulment for were impotency in the man (and he had to be impotent with ALL women, not just his wife, and he had to undergo a rather humiliating and pubic trial as a group of hired prostitutes did their best to arouse him), or to claim consanguinity (that your kinship prohibits the marriage, as Henry VIII did when he sought to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled). Consanguinity was mostly an issue for someone who married their deceased partner’s sibling (since most of the other degrees are fairly squicky right on the surface: marrying an uncle or a half-brother or your own grandmother). The Marriage Act of 1835 settled this issue once and for all by grandfathering in all such brother-in-law or sister-in-law marriages already contracted and officially outlawing any further ones.
How do you feel about heroines who push the boundries of the genre? Do you enjoy reading about unusual women who make choices that might not be within the norm (but are still historically accurate)? We Hoydens sure do seem to enjoy writing about them . . .
If this issue interests you, here are a few books that contain useful information about marriage and divorce in Georgian England: The Rise of the Egalitarian Family by Randolph Trumbach; Road to Divorce by Lawrence Stone; The Grand Century of the Lady by Arthur Calder-Marshall; Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 by Lawrence Stone; and Sex in Georgian England by A.D. Harvey.