Vengeful Susan

Linda Colley

  • Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660-1753 by Lawrence Stone
    Oxford, 295 pp, £16.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 820253 9
  • Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 1660-1857 by Lawrence Stone
    Oxford, 373 pp, £16.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 820254 7

In 1990, Lawrence Stone published a book called Road to Divorce. Bold, original, pungent and wide-ranging, it was at one level an attempt to convey the vagaries and varieties of matrimony in England from Tudor times to the Marriage Act of 1753, and the extreme difficulty and distress involved in legally separating from a spouse before the passage of the Divorce Act in 1857. At a deeper level however, and characteristically, Stone’s purpose was far more ambitious.

Ever since his huge, combative and in every sense seminal volume, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977), Stone has been scornful of those historians of the family who put their trust primarily in demography. This is partly for the obvious reason that number-crunching illuminates the incidence and success rate of past human procreation rather than what it meant for those involved. But Stone also rejects the idea that the most significant changes over time are to be found in matters such as the age of men and women at marriage or the size of households, or that these are all that historians can confidently measure. He does not accept that sexual love, or the relations between husband and wife and parent and child, are human constants outside history, or too private to be amenable to rigorous investigation. Instead, he has always insisted that people’s experience of and attitudes to childhood, love, sex, marriage and parenthood have gone through marked and ascertainable changes, particularly in the two centuries after the English civil wars.

The same applies to marital disharmony, adultery and divorce. Silent frustration, angry words, snatched and messy embraces, lust, loneliness and remorse are not timeless or private experiences only. Rather, Stone has argued, studying them ‘offers a privileged, indeed almost unique insight’ into how individuals have interacted with ‘the public spheres of morality, religion and the law’. But how to study them exactly?

Stone’s gold-mine, which he has plundered more intensively and imaginatively than any other scholar, are the records of England’s ecclesiastical courts. In particular, he has drawn on the still virtually intact records of the Court of Arches, which dealt with appeals against broken marriages and for marital separations from Southern England and Wales. It was largely these documents which allowed him in Road to Divorce to construct a rigorous statistical framework around the details of a myriad personal agonies from the past. He showed, for example, that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, even minor tradesmen and some of the very poor could afford to bring their marital disputes to the Court of Arches, but that access to it – as to so much else in England – became far more confined to the amply propertied as the 1700s progressed.

Yet, for most readers of Road to Divorce, it was not these scholarly discoveries that leaped out of the text. Rather it was the magically preserved voices of long-dead individuals caught fast in moments of extreme stress. Officials in ecclesiastical courts interrogated those who came before them in private and wrote down what they said in extenso. Bitter accusations, angry rebuttals, the testimonies of successive witnesses, whether servants or lords, bribed or otherwise, were all carefully recorded. And it is these detailed and often conflicting accounts of ragged and stormy relationships which Stone has now used to flesh out his earlier overall thesis. Uncertain Unions supplies 24 case-studies of individuals insisting on or disputing the validity of a marriage. The darker and more gripping Broken Lives opens up 12 stories of marriages disintegrating under pressure.

As such, these are rich, captivating, almost prurient volumes. Time and time again, one is shaken by the pathos and surprising detail of lives rarely chronicled elsewhere. There is poor René Harris, a Catholic organ-maker in Augustan London eager to improve himself. We learn that someone this marginal nonetheless wanted and was able to commission a portrait of his wife. But it was while he was away mending organs to pay for such status-objects that this same wife, who was either fatuous or an aspiring procuress, allowed their daughter Abigail to sleep with one Jack Lingard. Our last view of René is of him desperately offering Jack what must have seemed the highly unconvincing sum of £1000 to marry Abigail so as to save her family from the dishonour of an unmarried mother. Then there are the words of the very poor, which possess at best a Brechtian simplicity and power. Like the servant girl whose most vivid memory of the encounter which left her with child was that it took place ‘in a ground where pulse growed’.

In most of these stories, however, this kind of directness is absent. Instead, and as Stone points out, his characters seem frequently to have employed the mannered and sentimental language of contemporary novels. So much so, that one wishes more critical attention had been given to what this language meant to its speakers and listeners, and how we should read and understand it now. We hear so much these days about history as competing narratives that it seems unnecessary, even simplistic, for Stone to remind us that legal records cannot supply ‘the full and unvarnished truth’. What is ‘the truth’ in a marital dispute in any age? And is not some more searching and sceptical discussion of these ostensibly verbatim accounts of individual testimonies called for? Court of Arches clerks, lawyers and judges were naturally all male. So when, for example, Stone declares ringingly of Clara Middleton, a possible adulteress, ‘everything we know about her suggests that she was an exceptionally strong-minded and self-willed woman and William an exceptionally docile husband,’ one is bound to wonder just what it is that we do know. Is this Stone’s own – possibly stereotypical – view of male and female temperaments? Or is his interpretation influenced by the stereotypes of those male officials of the 18th-century courtroom who controlled the written narrative?

I question, too, whether the periodicisation of sexual emotions and behaviour was ever as precise and clear-cut as Stone sometimes suggests. In both books, for instance, he argues that England lost its ‘moral moorings’ between 1680 and 1710, that ‘violence, perjury, rape and obsessive promiscuous sexuality’ were the hallmarks of these years, that gender relations underwent a major shift, and that all this was connected with the decline of strict puritan religion and the fading of patriarchalism. Yet it is possible to construct a very different picture of sex and marriage in this same era by looking at relationships other than the flamboyant and undeniably murky ones he himself selects. One might point, for example, to the marriage between John Churchill and Sarah Jenyns, future Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, or to that of their friend Sidney Godolphin and Margaret Blague. Both men, be it noted, leaned initially towards Toryism, which Stone seems to equate with a tendency towards a patriarchal view of marriage. Yet the Churchills were surely a triumphant example of monogamous, companionate marriage, while Godolphin made a religious cult of his short-lived wife and remained, as far as we know, for ever true to her memory.

Of course there was a sense of fin-de-siècle moral turmoil, insecurity and lurking violence around 1700. But I doubt if shifts in morality and in sexual and personal relations were the root cause of anxiety and turbulence. Rather, we have surely to remember that, at the turn of the century, the Glorious Revolution was still a very recent event, that the religious settlement was in flux, that England, like virtually all of Europe, was caught up in a major war, and that dynastic and party politics were peculiarly sharp and dangerous. It cannot be accidental that a disproportionate number of the couples Stone discusses from the 1680-1710 period – and indeed throughout these books – were Catholics and/or High Tories, people who were likely to feel alienated and in peril in an increasingly Whig and Protestant state. There is the case of the future Lord Baltimore and the daughter of Lord Lichfield in Broken Lives, ‘a Catholic marriage on both sides’ and, in Uncertain Unions, the premarital struggles of the daughter of the Tory, possibly Jacobite, 2nd Duke of Leeds, and the extraordinary case of the Rev. George Mordaunt, a lapsed Catholic priest.

Mordaunt was the youngest brother of the 3rd Earl of Anglesea, who converted to Anglicanism out of political prudence and for the sake of a career. When he took up with a fellow lodger, a Catholic called Susan Forbes, impregnated her and then dumped her in 1708 to marry a prosperous widow, he found him self caught up in three years of expensive litigation. The vengeful Susan resorted to a shadowy circle of Catholic low-life friends, male and female neighbours as well as a former lesbian lover who was also a Jacobite conspirator. Together, they staged several fake marriage ceremonies (with one of them playing the part of Mordaunt) so as to blackmail him with the charge of bigamy, planning to split the winnings between them. These plots eventually failed. Yet two important and still unexplored points emerge from this tawdry tale. First, there is the ability of a poor woman, complacently described by Mordaunt as being ‘of very mean and obscure extraction’, nonetheless to understand and seek to exploit the mechanisms of the law. Second, we gain a rare insight here into the mentalities of the Catholic and Jacobite disreputable classes at this time. As Stone points out, Forbes and her friends seem to have been intent, not just on cash but on punishing a betrayal of religious faith.

This is not the only example here of the collisions and connections between amatory and state politics. John Dineley, another Tory outsider, was destroyed in part because he made a wildly unsuitable marriage to a 14-year-old semi-literate heiress, but also because his brother, Samuel, was a Whig. The two of them squabbled over who would be Mayor of Evesham, as well as over who should gain the Dineley estate, depleted by the costs of John’s separation from his wife. In 1741, John was murdered by Samuel, who was duly hanged. It is in this always impressive ability to show how the ordering and turmoil of private lives were interconnected with political, social, economic, religious and legal developments, that these books’ enduring historical value (as distinct from anecdotal appeal) lies. The private very often overlapped with the public. Thus the British state first became anxious to restore order to the chaos of post-Reformation marriage practices in the warlike 1690s, when it was desperate to levy taxes on marriage licences. By the same token, it was no accident that bishops and politicians became peculiarly anxious about immorality among the aristocracy at the end of the 18th century. As Stone shows, there may indeed have been a rise in patrician adultery at this time. The number of divorce bills coming before Parliament doubled in the 1780s and 1790s to 41 per decade. Yet what most provoked anxiety at this time were the American and French Revolutions abroad, and social changes at home. Together they made it vital that Britain’s ruling élites be seen to be above reproach.

But the most striking way in which these books illuminate the overlap between the private and the political lies in what they reveal about the balance of power between the sexes. At one level, the message is stark and predictable. There can be few more satisfying declarations of the link between the patriarchal view of marriage and the running of an all-male polity than Colonel Thomas Blood’s assertion in 1700 that ‘I am Justice of the Peace over my own wife.’ And for those seeking evidence of wife-beating, husbandly cruelty, and the iniquities and idiocies of 17th, 18th and 19th-century English law with regard to married women, there is plenty of ammunition here. But because Stone is a far more subtle historian than his detractors sometimes imply, we can also trace throughout these books rather different and more unexpected patterns.

Cash, class – and occasionally also chutzpah – could moderate the disadvantages of gender. Rich and enterprising women could use the law as ruthlessly as predatory males. Indeed, they could sometimes be the predators. Mary Stenson, an heiress from the minor gentry, seems to have trifled with the affections and the bodies of two men in the 1650s and 1660s, before marrying a third. They sued, but she won. Twenty years later, Mary Cudworth, the well-educated daughter of a clergyman, also had her own marriage portion. Empowered by this, she herself negotiated marriage with one suitor, before falling in love with another, and drafting her own marriage contract with him. Family pressure almost bound her to the wrong man, but her contract was sound enough to save her in a court of law.

It is possible – though not proven – that women from such mildly gentrified and respectable backgrounds had fewer such opportunities for autonomy by the 18th century. It was another matter for very rich and titled women. As Stone shows, the law came, gradually and in its own way, to be as attentive to them as it was to their male peers. Trouble erupted in the Turst marriage in the 1730s, for instance, because the relatively new legal phenomenon of the wife’s marriage settlement allowing her exclusive use of her fortune so infuriated her boorish and conventional husband. And when the Duke of Grafton divorced his adulterous wife in the 1760s, his lawyers took it for granted that – guilty though she was by the double standard – she should nonetheless still be compensated monetarily for losing the right to be called ‘Your Grace’.

The always ambiguous position of women such as these, sometimes disadvantaged because of their sex, yet always privileged in terms of wealth and class, emerges from one of the most brilliant of the case-studies in Broken Lives. In 1812, Emily Cecil, daughter of the Tory magnate, Lord Salisbury, married George Nugent, heir to the 7th Earl of Westmeath. It was a love match: but, right from the start, the marriage settlement was skewed in Emily’s favour because her family’s status and income were so much greater than the Anglo-Irish Westmeaths’. Her marriage portion was settled exclusively on her children, and her pin money and jointure were generous – too generous in fact for the Nugent estate to afford. As the marriage foundered, Emily tightened the screws still further. In 1817, she only agreed to a reconciliation on the basis of a new financial settlement whereby she ran her husband’s estate. The following year, she drove an even harsher bargain. In return for not suing George for cruelty, she insisted that he sign over custody of the children to her and that he live in their London house only as a lodger.

She thereby went too far. In the resulting protracted litigation, the extent to which the law still underpinned patriarchy was made brutally clear. Although George had committed adultery and she had not, her children were taken from her and she never recovered them. Moreover, the Courts initially ruled that by allowing her husband to share her house if not her bed, Emily had forfeited the right to sue him for earlier acts of cruelty. ‘An English wife,’ she would subsequently write, ‘is absolutely nothing but a slave.’ Yet this was not, in fact, the moral of this unhappy tale. Emily’s patrician friends rallied round. The Duke of Wellington awarded her a state pension. The future Queen of England gave her a palace job. Sympathetic peers and MPs began to work with her and Caroline Norton to reform the laws over child custody. And a judge named Sir John Nicholl changed the definition of legal cruelty on her behalf. ‘Among the lower classes,’ he pronounced with lofty confidence, ‘blows sometimes pass between married couples who, in the main, are very happy.’ But ‘if a nobleman of high rank and ancient family uses personal violence to his wife, his equal in rank’, the injury became ‘severe and insupportable’. Not the extent of cruelty, but how it was experienced, now became the crucial point at issue.

The Westmeath case nicely sums up one of the most persistent themes of these volumes. We all delight in and/or suffer from sex. But since, for the upper classes, matters of sex were so often caught up with the transmission of property, it was they who in the past took the lead in making and amending the laws of matrimony. It was perhaps no accident that the first sweeping reform of the laws in England regarding marital breakdown, in 1857, should have occurred during the administration of the man who was also the most flamboyantly adulterous premier in British history, Viscount Palmerston. The rich and titled are different. And they look after their own.