Saturday, 1 August 2015

Napoleon Provides an Example Divorce

When Roland forbids Harriet to enter their marital home, she stays with Walter Dunraven and the adulterous couple travels to Ghent, “selected, because being a commercial and unfashionable old city, scarcely any English ever make it their abode.” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 6). Harriet describes in detail how dreary the sights of Ghent were to her: “Thus my days dragged on till you sued for a divorce.” (Ibid.) Walter wants to marry Harriet, but she resists the idea and falls ill. She has a frightening nightmare:

“During my illness I had a dream. I thought that I woke up after death in another world. I lay on my back, bound hand and foot, and alone. On all sides of me were firey [sic.] and lofty walls, and over my head was a roof of granite red hot. The reflected heat of my vast dungeon burned and baked my manacled limbs. My veins were swollen and throbbing with liquid fire. Then flames burst forth from the ground beneath me, and I was on the point of being suffocated. In my agony I desired that I might be reduced to a cinder. But, no, I was doomed to a never-ending, incomplete suffocation. The red-hot roof then opened with a violence which seemed to shake my prison to its foundations, and, as the rent widened, I heard its thunder loud and harsh articulate these terrible words:  'Marriage is honourable, and the bed undefiled; but adulterers and adulteresses God will judge.'” (Ibid.)

Harriet leaves Walter, and with her sister Lizzy decides to travel to Paris to plead with Roland. As Harriet’s nightmare of purgatory gives a Catholic judgement on her actions, so Roland too receives a moral verdict. One evening he wonders into a Catholic church in Paris and hears a sermon about the indissolubility of matrimony. The Curé explains the Catholic view on divorce with the clarity of a legal expert:

"When a divorce is granted by the Church it is because a marriage has been contracted within the prohibited degrees of affinity, or with some person whom it is unlawful to marry ; as, for example, one who is under vows of celibacy, or, lastly, because the consummation of the marriage is hopeless and impossible. A divorce, therefore, in such cases is not to be regarded as the dissolution of a nuptial bond, but merely as a declaration on the part of the Church, that there has never, strictly speaking, been any marriage at all. “(The Law of the Divorce, Chapter 7)

The author provides references to the Bible for the sections quoted by the Curé and other footnotes throughout the 10-page long speech on perfidiousness and history of divorce. (Ibid.) The Curé condemns the recent English divorce law as “Adultery made easy” (Ibid.)

The Law of Divorce has now turned Roland’s dilemma into a religious question. Harriet’s dream of purgatory (a Catholic concept) and Roland’s visit to a Catholic church-service have persuaded them both to look to Rome for rules regarding matrimony. These rules support their desire to be reunited.

The narrative appears to suggest that the Catholic view is right. Roland and Harriet have both been led into temptation and they have both fallen. Harriet was seduced by Walter and committed adultery, giving in to her vanity and sexual desire. Roland equally gave in to his own desire for revenge. As a result they are now separated and are seeking a way to redeem themselves and return to the original blessed state of matrimony.

Catholicism’s ascendancy in the narrative is checked, however, by Catherine. Roland goes home and has a conversation with his wife about divorce. Catherine declares: “In the Romish Church you may get anything for hard cash! Pardons, indulgences, sacraments, dispensations, and divorces, all have their price.” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 8) She chooses Napoleon as an example:

Napoleon aged 23
“Napoleon Buonaparte divorced the faithful Josephine easily enough, after he had lived with her thirteen years, and was married by the Church to Maria Louisa of Austria, with equal facility." (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 8)

The well documented reason for Napoleon’s (1769-1821) desire to free himself of Josephine (1763-1814) was the lack of male heir. The Emperor’s potential heir, his nephew Napoleon Charles Bonaparte died in 1807 at the age of four, Napoleon survived an assassination attempt in 1809; these events concentrated his mind on this matter.  Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie Louisa of Austria (1791-1847) in 1810.

Napoleon’s divorce from Josephine reflects Roland’s situation in The Law of Divorce. Josephine, six years older than Napoleon and a widowed mother of two was far from “faithful” as Catherine suggests. She began an adulterous affair with a handsome Hussar pretty much as soon as Napoleon had disappeared over the horizon on his first military campaign after their marriage in 1796. Napoleon’s feelings for her were never quite the same after this, and when he could no longer deny his wife’s adultery, he retaliated. In 1798, during the Egyptian campaign, he famously had a mistress known as ‘Napoleon’s Cleopatra’. Several illegitimate children with a number of mistresses followed. Here too, we have a newly wedded wife unable to resist temptation, followed by a revengeful reaction by a quick-tempered husband.

In defence of Napoleon’s divorce from Josephine, Roland observes that the marriage was not within the Catholic Church and therefore would not have been valid (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 8). At the time of the marriage in 1796, the Catholic Church had no standing in France. Only in 1801, as the First Consul, Napoleon restored the religious powers of the Catholic Church. Napoleon himself was brought up as a Catholic but did not continue in this faith as an adult. However, in 1804 Josephine persuaded Napoleon to marry again, this time according to Catholic rites. Reluctantly Napoleon agreed, and the ceremony took place the day before his coronation as the Emperor of the French on 1st December 1804.

Josephine’s timing may have been influenced by the drafting of the Napoleonic Code in 1804. Divorce had been made easy by post-revolutionary legislation in 1792, and despite the 1801 Concordat restoring the Catholic Church in France, Napoleon decided to keep divorce as an option in the statute books. It was abolished in 1816 at the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, and then introduced again in 1884.

So, in the end, it looks like Catherine is correct in her assessment of the Catholic Church. Napoleon had his marriage to Josephine annulled on the technicality that the parish priest was not present at the ceremony in 1804 (this may have been deliberately arranged as a useful get-out-clause at the time). This way, he ensured not only a divorce but an annulment according the Catholic doctrine acceptable to his future Catholic in-laws. His second wife, Maria Louisa of Austria (or to give her full name Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha Lucia) was Catholic and her marriage to Napoleon was celebrated according to Catholic rites – twice. First in Vienna, where Napoleon was absent and represented by the bride’s uncle, then in Paris, with a third ceremony, a civil wedding, in between.

Roland replies to Catherine’s example of Napoleon by listing a number of cases throughout history when the Pope has excommunicated people (including England’s Henry VIII) as a punishment for wanting a divorce (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 8). This part of the argument seems like a dead heat, so Roland changes tact: “But enough as to what Rome says on this subject; let us turn to a much more important inquiry, viz., what does the Bible say.” (Ibid.)  He challenges Catherine to interpret the sections of the bible the Curé used in his sermon. Catherine replies firmly: “in the opinion of Protestant clergymen in general they do not forbid a husband or wife legally separated on the ground of adultery from marrying again." (Ibid.) And then she goes on to make the Protestant case. She makes an absolutely blistering attack against the Catholic church and then addresses the specific question of divorce:

“A blameless wife or husband is made the victim of a partner's infidelity, and the Church, which they call Catholic, would condemn this innocent one to perpetual celibacy! Can anything be conceived more arbitrary, unnatural, and unjust? This was one of the mediaeval fetters which Luther broke in pieces.” (Ibid.)

The central question of divorce in The Law of Divorce has now shifted away from the earlier choice between the righteousness of the Divine law versus that of man-made law. It is now a choice between the Catholic and the Protestant, between the foreign (French or continental) and the British moral code and religious views on divorce. Roland is confused:

“The sermon which he had heard from the Curé had made a durable impression on his mind on the one hand, while on the other Catherine's heavy broadsides and smart fire of small shot had not failed to take also a certain effect. Between the two he was miserable, and more distracted than ever; he knew not what to think, and still less what to do.” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 9)

He approaches “The Abbé Lagier, the Curé of St. Sauveur” for advice (Ibid.). The Curé explains to Roland, once again, the rules of matrimony and divorce according to the Catholic doctrine. For a fleeting moment Roland contemplates becoming a Catholic in order to have his second marriage annulled. “God forbid” is the Curé’s response to this, and it is now clear to Roland that the Catholic faith will not offer him a way out of his marital dilemma: “his intercourse with priests, in their priestly capacity, began and ended with this visit.” (Ibid.) Roland’s dilemma is practical rather than spiritual, and altogether beyond the sphere of priests.

With this insight by Roland, The Law of Divorce dismisses the religious aspects of Roland’s divorce and re-marriage. The central theme of the novel is no longer a matter of a fundamental moral principle. From now on the matter of the divorce becomes a social problem (how to avoid scandal) and a personal struggle (how to get what they want) for Roland, Harriet and Catherine.

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