Friday, 7 August 2015

... And the Law Won (Plot Spoiler Alert!)



For its final chapters The Law of Divorce returns to the main plot and Roland’s desperate situation with two wives. At last, there is some plot development.

Walter Dunraven, Harriet’s seducer arrives at the chateau garden in the disguise of a Capuchin monk (a nod to Gothic tradition perhaps). He begs Harriet to leave Roland: “Come and live with me again, Harry, and let us be regularly spliced.” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 21)

Lizzy’s and Scipio’s relationship goes through a minor crisis when Scipio figures out the true state of Roland’s matrimony and suspects that Lizzy is deliberately deceiving him about it (The Law of Divorce, Chapters 22-23).

Roland informs Harriet has he has finally decided to leave Catherine, sell all his property in England, and sail for America with her (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 24).

The final denouement is triggered when Roland and Harriet are woken up by an intruder in the night:

“The visage of Mademoiselle Cyr — for she it was who had been prompted by vicious curiosity to secrete herself in the Els- mere's chamber — was almost too monstrous to be described.” (Ibid.)

Mlle Cyr provides the excuse for Roland and Harriet, with their children and Lizzy to flee the chateau. Meanwhile, Roland is descending into depression as the stress caused by his matrimonial situation grows unbearable:

“In his desponding moments black melancholy fell upon his spirit, like a pall ; the proud form of the avenging Catherine alone appeared, like a remorseless fury, amid the darkness, and all time and space was filled by one omnipotent Adversary, employed in planning and working his utter misery and ruin.” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 26)

Roland and Harriet reach a railway carriage on their way to Le Havre. At Rouen Catherine climbs on board with lawyer Mr Scruples and his wife. (Ibid.) Catherine has come to intercept Roland’s flight:

“She arose also, seized Roland by the collar, thrust him violently back in his seat, and, in an imperious tone, said, "Sit still, Sir. You will try in vain to escape.” (Ibid.)

Harriet and Catherine have a vicious argument. It is uncommon to find such an aggressive exchange of words among Victorian ladies in fiction. Once Catherine has made the moral case and reminded Harriet in detail that she is a fallen woman, Mr Scruples takes over and presents the legal view:

“Now the question at issue between yourself and Mrs. Elsmere is wholly independent of any of those religious considerations on which you seem to lay so much stress. It has nothing whatever to do with the law of nature, the law of conscience, or the law of God. … It resolves itself simply into this — What says the law of England ?” (Ibid.)

Mr Scruples quotes the law: “Now in the 49th clause of the Bill entitled ' An Act to amend ' — merely to amend observe, not to alter in any essential points — ' the law relating to Divorce and Matrimonial Causes in England,' passed in the year 1857, liberty to re-marry is expressly given to the divorced parties, ' as if the prior marriage had been dissolved by death.' In the eye of the law, therefore, you are dead as regards Mr. Elsmere, and he is legally no more to you than the dust and bones in a coffin.” (Ibid.)

According to Maurice Swabey’s commentary on the Act, published in 1857, the relevant article is 57, not 49: