Friday, 28 September 2012

The Inconvenient Necessity of Bigamy

Lady Audley's Secret is set a few years before it was published, around 1858. That was an important year for all would-be bigamists. Up until that year, divorce was not realistically an option, and bigamy was sometimes the only practical solution.

In Victorian times many left their husbands and wives and took up with new partners. George Eliot and M. E. Braddon were not unique in establishing households with married men. Some men, like Wilkie Collins, supported two families. Madame Rachel, the infamous queen of cosmetics was abandoned with a small daughter by her husband Joseph Moses, who went prospecting to Australia. She moved in with Philip Levison, started a second family and took his name, although there is no record of her ever marrying Levison. Madame Rachel was eventually tried for fraud in 1868. Her shop would have been at 47a New Bond Street for Lady Audley to visit, and perhaps it was her advertisements Lady Audley had seen in the paper in Volume 1, chapter 7 (Madame Rachel advertised her products frequently).

Changing life partners was sometimes scandalous but mostly it was commonplace. Bigamy, however, was a step too far because it smacked of being mercenary. A bigamist might have many reasons to hide his or her past from the second spouse and they were not all based on morals or religion. An important reason for such deception was financial: the desire to get your hands on your new spouse's fortune. Men, as soon as they married, became owners of their wives' property. Bigamy could be lucrative. Women had a strong motivation to hide their previous marriages since few men were willing to invest in a woman knowing that at any moment some other chap could come along and demand his share.

For centuries marriage and divorce had been matters for the church. When marrying, a woman lost all her rights, her property became her husband's, her children belonged to him. He could abuse her; beat her, lock her up, starve her, as it took his fancy. There was no redress for the wife, and no authority that she could appeal to when the marriage went badly wrong. Legally women were on the same page with children, the mentally ill and criminals.

Only the Church of England could create or end a marriage. You could ask for annulment arguing that true marriage never took place because it has not been consummated or because your spouse is insane and therefore incapable of understanding the holy sacrament of marriage. You could also ask for annulment based on possible incest. John Ruskin's wife Euphemia Ruskin gained an annulment of their 6-year-long marriage in 1854 by proving she was a virgin. After an annulment you could marry again, but all children of a null marriage were illegitimate.

You could also ask the Church of England to grant you a separation a mensa et thoro (from bed and board) by petitioning the Consistory Court in Doctors' Commons. This meant that the spouses could live apart without risking being blamed for desertion. You could not remarry again, and the husband continued to have control of all finances and children.

If you  were wealthy enough you could go the whole hog. This option was only open to husbands. After gaining a separation granted by the Church, you could sue your wife's lover, termed 'co-respondent,' in the Court of King's Bench for what was effectively the theft of your wife as your property. If your case was successful, and you were granted damages for your loss, the parliament could pass a private Act of Parliament giving you a divorce. The cost of this process ran into thousands of pounds, but afterwards you were both free to marry again, and your children were not declared illegitimate.

Caroline Norton was famously the woman who set the ball rolling to change this with her indefatigable work for improving the rights of women in marriage and divorce. She had a personal incentive being married to a violent bully who appropriated all her property and kept her children from her. The full story is told in A Scandalous Woman: the Story of Caroline Norton (1992) by Alan Chedzoy. Norton was a well-educated and well-connected woman whose marriage became a public scandal when her husband George Norton, disappointed by his own lack of progress in politics, lashed out in 1836 and accused the Home Secretary and future Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne of "criminal knowledge" of his wife. Although Melbourne was judged not guilty, George Norton's hostility towards his wife continued. In the middle of their marital troubles their three sons were ruthlessly used as bargaining chips and Caroline Norton grew desperate when her husband barred her access to them. Since the law of the land gave her no support, Norton had little choice but to try and change the law. She was in the fortunate position of having a social standing and connections in the world of politics to achieve this through lobbying and campaigning.

Her first victory was the Infant Custody Bill passed in 1839, which gave regular access rights to both parents for children of twelve years old or younger. The next one came in 1857, when she was forty-nine years old. After years of campaigning and hundreds of pages of pamphlets by her, the parliament passed the Divorce Act. According to her biographer, four important clauses in this act, granting divorced women power over their own property and financial transactions, were taken almost word for word from her writings.

Following the passing of the Matrimonial Causes (or Divorce) Act 1857, The Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes opened in 1858 with Sir Creswell Creswell as the Judge Ordinary in charge. He presided with two other judges. One of the early cases of the court was one submitted by Henry Robinson who was determined to rid himself of his adulterous, diary-writing wife. This story is told by Kate Summerscale in Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: the Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (2012). Caroline Norton never got divorced, and married again in 1877 only after George Norton had died.

In the new secular divorce court, as in the ecclesiastical court before, it was sufficient for men to prove one indiscretion, one false step of adultery by their wives, as grounds for divorce. Wives, on the other hand, had to prove their husband's adultery and another reason for divorce. They had a list to choose from: bigamy, incest, rape, sodomy, bestiality, grievous bodily harm or two years' desertion. There was always a guilty party in a divorce. And divorce always required proof of adultery. In addition, no husband would be given a divorce, if the wife could prove that he too had committed adultery, or that he had condoned her adultery by being aware of it but not doing anything about it. The lapse of time was an important factor.

The 1857 act was followed by several other laws that modified woman's position in marriage and divorce proceedings. Further Infant Custody Acts in 1873 and 1886 extended mothers' rights to keep custody of their children. Married Women's Property Acts in 1870 and 1882 gave married women the same property rights as unmarried women.

Only in 1923 the law was changed so that men and women both could claim for divorce on equal grounds. From 1937 divorce did not require proof of adultery; cruelty and desertion were also made sufficient grounds. And it took until 1969 for the concept of a guilty party to be removed and "irretrievable breakdown" could be quoted as the grounds for divorce.

In Lady Audley's Secret, what should Lucy Graham have done when Sir Michael proposed? Her first husband disappeared leaving her with a babe in arms in the house of a father who could not support them. In the three and a half years since her husband left, she slowly built a life for herself and was managing to earn a living in a respectable fashion as a governess. She had not fallen into prostitution, destitution or the world of theatre. There was no way on earth she would have been able to legally divorce George Talboys. Even after the 1857 Divorce Act, Lucy Graham (aka Helen Talboys, as the narrative strongly suggests) would have needed money to bring a court case in front of Sir Creswell Creswell and his fellow-judges. Although she would have been able to claim desertion, she would have had to prove her husband's adultery as well. And there is probably no chance of that, with Talboys constantly expressing his devotion and love for his wife.

Should Lucy Graham have declined the offer of life-long luxury and pampering by Sir Michael, just because her first husband was still possibly alive somewhere? The temptation was great, the risk seemed minimal. Lady Audley's bigamy is naughty and selfish, yes, but it is hardly evil. Bigamy was a practical solution and sometimes quite necessary if you wanted to get on with your life.

There is an ironic twist at the tail end of Lady Audleys Secret when Robert Audley makes his name as a lawyer in a dispute over a broken engagement: "the great breach of promise case of Hobbs vs Nobbs"  (Vol III, Chapter 10).

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