Hogarth's Marriage a la Mode prints show a young couple who was happy...with others.
I've never been married, but I suspect that there's a moment early in every marriage where one or both parties suddenly get a cold, dreadful, "I've made a mistake" feeling. In some cases, that feeling evaporates, as you realize you can get used the annoying quirk of personality or tick that prompted that thought, decide the revelation about the past doesn't matter that much, or understand there is more good than bad. In other cases, you're right, and it's already the beginning of the end. People make mistakes, and as judged by divorce statistics, marriage mistakes are unfortunately common.
It wasn't really that long ago, though, that divorce was next to impossible, and if you made a mistake, you were trapped.
Oh my gosh, I am trying to sound all serious and like I have important historical statements to make about marriage, women's rights, and divorce, when there really is no one who has less of a right to discourse on those topics. So let me start over.
Wendy Moore's Wedlock, tells the story of what was if not the world's worst marriage and divorce, then the gold standard for all others before and since.
More 18th c. debauchery from Hogarth.
Mary Eleanor Bowes was one of eighteenth-century England's wealthiest heiress's, the daughter of a coal-mine owner at a time when the new machinery of the period made coal one of the nation's most valuable resources. Spoiled and adored by her father, Mary Eleanor was given the type of rigorous classical education that was more common for boys than girls of the time. She became a passable writer and a passionate devotee of the relatively new science of botany.
For all her father's care, Mary Eleanor unfortunately became one of those people you might label all book smarts, no street smarts. Her father died when she was thirteen, and the young girl, impetuous, flirtatious, and used to getting her way, flounced out into England's fast social scene and immediately began to exercise one of her greatest natural talents: an eye for the worst man in the room.
And with all her money, Mary Eleanor was in high demand. She settled, though, on John Lyon, Lord of Strathmore, a Scottish lord who owned amongst other places, Glamis Castle (as in Macbeth-Glamis). He was about eleven years her senior, and seemed intellectual, and romantic in his remoteness. Before she was even married, though, Mary Eleanor began to suspect they weren't well-matched, but was too stubborn to admit that the warnings of others that the couple were ill-suited for each other had been right. She married, and discovered that they had little in common; while Strathmore was an intellectual with a literary bent, he didn't believe in encouraging his wife's pursuits much. Although they produced five children, their marriage was pretty chilly, although not much worse than many others in eighteenth-century Britain, where most marriages were arranged to either pick up money, power, or a title.
Strathmore died when Mary Eleanor was only twenty-eight, and she became the archetypal merry widow, flirting and partying as much as she could to make up for her quiet married years. She began a series of affairs, but the most serious was with George Gray, an Irish adventurer who was not up to the social standards of a countess, but seemingly not that bad a sort. However, Strathmore's younger brother, Thomas Lyon, was uneasy about any of Mary Eleanor's liaisons and kept a careful watch over her fortune and children; he feared a new marriage might produce more heirs who would take away from his nephews and nieces' rightful inheritance.
Mary Eleanor became pregnant a number of times by Gray and used the methods of the day to induce abortions. Finally, though, despite previously having vowed not to marry again, she decided that she would marry Gray and keep her latest pregnancy. But even after they'd announced their engagement--which at that time was as legally binding as marriage--and were planning their wedding, Mary Eleanor had already fallen for Andrew Robinson Stoney, an Irish soldier.
Stoney had already driven one heiress to an early grave and had affairs with a number of other young women who fell for his charms. However, his charm masked a darker personality--he was a fretful, demanding, self-centered bad boy who even his own family suspected of no good. But he was tall and handsome and knew how to sweep a woman off her feet. After he ran through his dead wife's fortune he looked for another wealthy woman, and found Mary Eleanor.
In retrospect, it's easy to condemn Mary Eleanor for getting involved with someone as bad as Robinson, but considering how many other women, and a fair number of men, he conned, he must have really had something going on. Mary Eleanor, though, was the object of his tour de force performance. With her marriage to Gray rapidly approaching, a series of columns began to appear in one of the papers making slanderous remarks about a woman who was obviously Mary Eleanor. Stoney challenged the writer of the columns to a duel and was grievously wounded. Mary Eleanor was told that Stoney was on his deathbed and rushed to him. Several doctors told her that Stoney was undoubtedly going to die so when he asked for one last wish to be granted--that they marry before he died, she agreed.
It turned out later that Stoney had orchestrated the whole thing, including the newspaper items insulting Mary Eleanor. He had faked his wounds and likely paid some of the doctors (one was his close friend) to testify that he was about to die. So now, instead of bidding Stoney a sad farewell and becoming a widow again in a matter of days, Mary Eleanor found herself married to a man who was suddenly recovering quite nicely. Needless to say, George Gray was furious; he eventually had to be paid off for the broken engagement.
Almost as soon as they were married, Stoney--now known as Bowes, according to the terms of Mary Eleanor's father's will, which had stated that any man who married her had to take her name--tried to get his hands on her money. However, a number of legal documents, including a prenuptial contract that Mary had signed in anticipation of her wedding to Gray, kept him from gaining full control of her estate and fortune (remember, at that time, everything a woman owned became the property of her husband when she married). Bowes forced Mary Eleanor to sign a recantation of her prenuptial contract, but Mary Eleanor made sure that a copy was held by a loyal footman--who was of course dismissed by Bowes, but was able to conceal the document when he was thrown out of the house.
Bowes became physically and mentally abusive. He beat Mary Eleanor regularly, starved her, and wouldn't buy her any clothes. Any servant who was seen as trying to help her was fired (one servant was caught bringing some food to her and was let go immediately). Bowes would barely let her speak in public, and if she did and said anything much beyond yes and no, he beat her some more. Once at a social event she took off her cloak, revealing a gown with holes in it, and he beat her for letting others see that. She tried to explain her visible cuts and bruises with the usual abused woman statements of "I walked into a door...I bumped into something," but they became too much to hide. Bowes described her to others as eccentric and mentally impaired and that he was just trying to help her, but she was starving herself, wouldn't wear new clothes, and was flailing around and injuring herself. And that was good enough for most people. Meanwhile, Thomas Lyon was keeping her children from her first marriage away from her and Bowes.
Bowes spent what money he could get his hands on, and carried on a number of affairs, usually with prostitutes or maids. When Mary Eleanor gave birth to George Gray's baby, Bowes slept with the baby's nurse, got her pregnant, and then made a point of treating her like a queen in front of his wife. At one point he took the family to France, and there forced Mary to translate a letter to a French woman, propositioning her. Along the way, Bowes raped several serving maids, leaving them pregnant. Eventually, Mary also had a son by him; the rest of his illegitimate children were almost too many to count.
Bowes biggest mistake came when he hired a maid named Mary Morgan. Clever and tough, Morgan would not except Mary Eleanor's fake excuses for her injuries and got her to confess the whole story of her marriage. Morgan organized a few other servants and planned an escape for Mary Eleanor. With her small group of loyal servants, Mary Eleanor hid out in London and worked with a few kindhearted lawyers who took her case on despite her having no access to her money. An enraged Bowes searched for her and tried to evade his court summonses.
The upper-class onetime friends studiously avoided helping Mary Eleanor out. Bowes's younger sister Mary, who he had kept hostage along with Mary Eleanor for about eighteen months (he was trying to plan a financially advantageous to him marriage for her) wanted to testify on her sister-in-law's behalf, but their parents, although horrified by their son's behavior, didn't want to get further involved and forbade her. The only money Mary Eleanor and her servants had came from the loyal tenants on her estates, who circumvented Bowes and sent their rent payments to her. Bowes, of course, tried to evict them, get the money back, or press them to reveal her location, but they stood by her.
Finally, after a lengthy court battle that filled the London papers and shocked the people with the true stories about Bowes's cruelty. This was a time, of course, when people thought it was all right for a husband to beat a wife to keep her in line, but most agreed that Bowes's actions went far beyond what could possibly be necessary.
Although victorious, Mary Eleanor couldn't relax; she was convinced Bowes was spying on her, and she proved to be right. A constable that had been sent to guard her turned out to be working for Bowes, and he arranged to have her kidnapped. Bowes dragged her from London up to Scotland in the middle of winter, even crossing the Pennines. This time, though, Mary Eleanor was strong enough to fight him off when he tried to rape her, and somehow survived his savage beatings, the cold, and starvation (seriously, when you read the account of her ordeal, you wonder how anyone could survive, let alone a slight, 18th c. upper-class woman dressed in a silk gown and slippers). A nationwide manhunt ensued, with the public following the reports breathlessly. Finally, in a dramatic encounter, Bowes was trapped by a couple of small town laborers and Mary Eleanor was rescued. Bowes was sent to prison (where, by the way, he managed to make the warden's daughter his mistress and left that miserable girl with a number of children).
Mary Eleanor then fought for custody of her children, another protracted battle in which she was the underdog. At that time (indeed, well into the 20th century, Moore writes), custody of children in divorce cases was almost always awarded to the father. Bowes was in prison, but still was originally awarded custody. But Mary won that battle, too, and after about fifteen years, finally was free of Bowes.
It wasn't until late in the nineteenth-century that women began slowly to gain marital rights, access to divorce, and the right to their children, so it's hard to call Mary Eleanor Bowes's case a turning point. However, you can probably call it the first crack in the previously ironclade laws that made women virtually prisoners in marriage, and noncitizens without property or rights.
The bare facts of this story are so melodramatic enough and so much the stuff of fiction (indeed, Thackeray's Barry Lyndon was inspired by the dastardly Bowes), that Moore could pretty much have just laid out the essentials and have had a jaw-dropping story. She's aided in her task by Mary Eleanor's own words, both in a document of her "sins" that she was forced to write by Bowes, and in her own memoir that wrote later in life. But Moore puts it all together well, and does for the most part let it speak for itself, without overdramatizing what was already incredible enough. I probably could have used less information about a botanical exploration journey Mary sponsored that then foundered when Bowes withdrew money; not that I'm not interested in eighteenth-century explorers, but it felt a little outside the momentum of the rest of the story. I would have liked to have seen some more quotes from people outside the Bowes-Lyon circle, a little more reaction from their social peers who had so little sympathy for Mary Eleanor, or just in general a bit more of the world outside the marriage. But maybe there wasn't much available, and considering the useful bibliography and notes that support so much of the rest of the book (though oddly, there is no art at all), I would have to guess that Moore did what she could (or maybe she thought, "awww...who wants to hear about that stuff? What we need is a nice break like a botanical expedition!"). The tale is certainly gripping enough as it is, and a fast read that I recommend to anyone of the "truth is stranger, or at least more dramatic" fan club.
If you've never been abused--and I haven't, it's so hard to put yourself into the shoes of those who have. It's hard not to think, "Why didn't you get help? Why didn't you just leave? How couldn't you find a way to run away?" But dimwitted and naive as I am, I understand how much more complicated all this is than it seems, and I won't judge those whose shoes I haven't worn. Mary Eleanor made her share of mistakes--she was silly, stubborn, and careless, but that didn't meant she deserved to be treated the way Bowes treated her. And as frivolous as she was when she started out, and as long as she suffered in silence, she still managed to survive, and that must say something about her.
As she grew older, Mary Eleanor increasingly kept to herself, along with just her trusted servants, and a growing family of dogs and cats, upon whom she lavished attention and care. She had questionable taste in company when she was young, but finally found the ones she could count on and who wouldn't hurt her--as everyone who has had a pet knows.
This has nothing to do with the Bowes case or marriage, but I have a soft spot for degenerate 18th century gamblers.