Cruelties of an 18th century marriage hold modern message

Posted on July 19, 2015 | Comments Off on Cruelties of an 18th century marriage hold modern message


South-west Victoria is home to a number of thriving bookclubs that meet monthly, including the Bool Belles. One of their members, Claire Norman, reviews what what they have been reading…

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match, by Wendy Moore

Wedlock’ is an historical record of the alarming and disastrous second marriage of the 18th Century heiress Mary Eleanor Bowes.  Her dramatic and prolonged escape became public knowledge and the ensuing court proceedings led to significant change in Britain’s divorce laws.

Mary was raised and educated in privileged circumstances. She married at 18 to become Countess of Strathmore. Five years and five children later, she is widowed and deemed (by social gossip and local newspaper cartoons) to be ‘stepping out’ rather too soon following the Count’s death.

‘Wedlock’ begins with a sword duel between the Reverend Henry Bate (journalist) and a certain ‘Captain’ Stoney. It takes place in a room attached to a well-to-do hotel and is easily audible to the hotel’s patrons.

While Stoney is duelling to defend the reputation of Mary, he is supposedly mortally wounded. News travels fast and Mary journeys to thank the dying stranger for his grand gesture.

At the time, Mary is engaged to another but she agrees to marry Stoney as is his dying wish. Somehow, Stoney rapidly makes a complete recovery and Mary is duty bound. However, ‘tis all a ruse and only ends after a marriage over many years full of abject cruelty and deviousness.


Author Wendy Moore has written an historical novel about marriage that holds contemporary overtones. Image: Leeds University.

The story closely follows all the loathsome details of the marriage with numerous asides giving extensive background about prevailing attitudes and practices. The story itself is compelling and solidly researched but many of the historical asides detract.

The strength of this book is as a catalyst for discussion about domestic violence, abusive relationships and the misuse of sex/gender as an instrument of power.

This is a true story that, even over the centuries, shocks the reader. Stoney’s behaviour is extreme. It is at a level that fully opens this ‘can of worms’ enabling us to freely discuss many and varied related issues such as contemporary domestic mistreatment, the difficulties for victims and the negative influences of our world.

We agreed on a need for the vulnerable to be able to stand up for themselves and for aggressors of any age to be held fully accountable for their words and deeds.  We also spoke of friends who endured horror-full situations.

‘Wedlock’ is one story from the past that is still truly and terribly relevant to our ‘modern’ society. It exposes truths and opens discussion on domestic cruelty. While the recorded events influenced British divorce laws at the time, it appears as if little has improved after 250 years of ‘civilised’ living.

Our next book is a Pulitzer Prize winner: ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’, by Adam Johnson and explores life in North Korea for one resilient individual.

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