History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 June 2008

Lord Scandal is Out!

And instead of an interview, I thought I talk about something relevant to the novel: Divorce, Georgian Style.

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.


Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I love Madame X. My copy of Deborah Davis' "Strapless" is worn, but I can't stop re-reading because it is a tragic story of beauty, social fears of the power of a woman's sexuality, AND the dichotomy of the expectations of the Victorian woman as an ornament to showcase her husband's wealth and position and the expectations of the Victorian woman to be "pure" and remain her her proper sphere(the home).

One of my most popular posts over at my blog deals with divorce in the Edwardian era (from the British side that is--it was a national pastime in America, and there wasn't as much of a stigma in France if you were sufficiently wealthy and powerful).

But congratulations on the release of your second book! What's up next?

3:27 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Congrats, Kalen!!

Fascinating post on divorce. When did divorce start getting harder for people in England (not that it was ever easy, but my recent research into medieval social practices seems to indicate that it was easier to "put aside" a wife back then? I'm so amused at how (in earlier times than the Regency) consanguinity became an issue which the Church so often overlooked when it was convenient, offering dispensations right and left (for a nice fee), yet was capable of turning on a dime to reverse their previous approval (for an even nicer fee).

The hypocrisy galls me, not just of the clergy, but when it comes to royal protocol (something else I discovered during my ROYAL AFFAIRS research). The sovereign refused to conscience a divorced person at court -- but openly known adulterers were welcome. True, many marriages were economic arrangements and not romantic ones, but that's almost beside the point.

I've never read "Strapless," but I've visited Madame X at the Metropolitan Museum of Art several times over the years. I remember reading that she went to extremes to maintain her almost translucently pale complexion.

4:15 AM  
Blogger doglady said...

Kalen, I absolutely LOVED Lord Scandal! Thanks so much for such a great read!

Thanks for the research books listing too. Definitely putting those on my Amazon wish list.

What was the procedure when it came to the discovery that a spouse was mentally incompetent? Did it have to be proved at the onset of the marriage? If the spouse became mad later in the marriage was there any way to get out of it?

Amanda, I concur about the hypocrisy of it all. Makes you wonder what their thought process was - adultery is okay, but divorce is unforgivable?

6:53 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Congrats, Kalen on the new book. I can't wait to buy a copy!

I've explored the issue of divorce several times over at my blog, Scandalous Women. Lillie Langtry had to become an American citizen to divorce Edward, and Caroline Norton worked for years to try and make divorce easier.

Part of the reason why I started the blog was because I loved women who dared, who stepped outside of what was considered the norm in their time, like Jane Digby.

And I too love Madame X. I was once doing a scavenger hunt at the Met, and we had to have a Sargent moment in front of Madame X in the American wing.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

La Belle Americaine: I think access to divorcee had really changed by the Edwardian era (and it was indeed a sport on my side of the pond).

I’m hard at work on a couple of different projects, sort of keeping the range top full as I see which projects will pan out . . .

8:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey doglady, I’m so glad you enjoyed LORD SCANDAL. It’s always a little scary when you send a new book out into the world. We all know that it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time, but sometimes the vitriol in some negative reviews and emails can be hard to shake off. I try to avoid looking. I don’t always succeed, but I don’t Google myself or my titles and I don’t EVER read my Amazon reviews.

I honestly have no idea what the deal was with mentally incompetent spouses and divorcee/annulment. It’s not a subject I’ve come across in any of the books I’ve read to date, but I haven’t seen it listed as one of the reasons that you could divorce or annual (but then I also haven’t really looked).

8:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oooooo, Elizabeth! I love the idea of a scavenger hunt at the MET!!! I can spend days and days there (even if their costume curators are really snooty).

8:12 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, Amanda. Congrats on your new book too! I can't wait to get my hands on it (Saturday. No time for book shopping till Saturday. The wait won't kill me. Just keep repeating that till I believe it).

8:13 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks for the summary of divorce in the regency -- and the list of books.

Is there a list somewhere on who was granted a divorce in those "one a year" horror shows? So a woman could not divorce her husband? There are times when the Regency annoys the heck out of me.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

There are highlights of specific cases in some of the books I've listed, but I've never seen a comprehensive list or anything.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Off the topic, but according to Wikipedia, Virginie Gautrau used lavender-colored face and body powder to enhance her ivory complexion.

Kalen, I've done two scavenger hunts at the Met. It was great because you get to see parts of the museum that you would never otherwise see, unless you knew they existed.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Congrats on LORD SCANDAL'S release, Kalen! I love the idea of a book with with a divorcée as a heroine. I love heroines who push boundaries of a genre or an historical era. A lot of my heroines defy conventions in different ways, but I've never written a divorced heroine (though Mélanie spends a portion of SECRETS OF A LADY thinking she may end up divorced).

I too have visited the "Madame X painting" at the Met. The notes that accompany it are fascinating.

11:35 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Weighing in late (I've been traveling) with my congrats and thanks for the good, sound info about divorce.

1:40 PM  

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