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:


Once Mr Scruples has lain down the law, Roland goes mad and Catherine leads him away.

What is the moral of the story? The cruel law of divorce triumphs but leaves victims with broken hearts and minds in its wake? So it would seem, but the wrapping up of the tale in the final chapters suggests something different.

Scipio turns out to be a son of a German prince and a merchant’s daughter (he is another hidden child with a false name but well cared-for from a distance). Harriet dies gracefully. Roland recovers and reconciles himself to his marriage with Catherine. The final dramatic scene belongs to Walter Dunraven – he dies with a truly melodramatic final speech. In the end, only the adulterers die, and everyone else lives if not happily at least relatively contentedly ever after. The Law of Divorce examines the implications of the English divorce law, but in the final judgment Catherine and the English law prevail.

The Law of Divorceis an uncommonly continental novel. It is set in France and contains long digression into (at the time) recent European history. These are tedious but they do contrast Roland’s individual position with that of the European nations. There is a struggle for freedom and self-determinacy on both levels, individual and national.

The language in The Law of Divorce is dramatic, engaging and entertaining when the characters are allowed to speak their minds (see Catherine letting it rip below). There are long polemical speeches; some, about the Catholic view on matrimony (in chapters 7, 8, 9) or the role of the state (chapter 20) are not good reading at all. Others however are passionate, melodramatic pleas full of romance or menace: for example, Lizzy’s attempt to persuade Roland to flee to America (chapter 12), Catherine’s outbursts (The Law of Divorce, Chapters 8, 13, 26) and Walter Dunraven’s final speech (chapter 29).

Characters in The Law of Divorce remain flat: Roland is the weak-willed hero, Harriet the clinging romantic heroine; Walter Dunraven is the villain and Scipio the brave, intellectual freedom fighter. The behave entirely within their type. Roland is a contrived character, but only because the narrator seeks to explain his 'unmanly' weakness (The Law of Divorce, Chapters 4, 20) and thereby turns him into an artificial construct. Catherine has the best lines. Here she is in full flow addressing Roland:

“You monster and impersonation of selfishness ! It is nothing to you to have ruined me, to have made me miserable for life, to have blighted all my prospects, to have made me a thousand fold more desolate than a widow, before the honeymoon is past!” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 13)

And she has a go at Harriet:

“Propriety and modesty you trampled underfoot. You defied public opinion. You stifled the voice of con science. You mocked at justice and judgment. You disported yourself with meretricious wantonness. You contaminated all you touched. You caused scandal whithersoever you went, and spread pestilence wherever you dwelt. You pierced your husband's soul with anguish; you made him prematurely a widower, and your children motherless. You brought dishonour on your family, and infamy on your name. You have ruined yourself, and now, if you could, you would ruin me." (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 26)

Catherine is a harridan and a villainess. She bribes servants and has them spy on Roland and Harriet. She is also a powerful and intelligent woman who has been abandoned on her honeymoon. Throughout the novel, Catherine relies solidly on the British law and the British establishment for her support. She confides in the British Ambassador, she employs a British lawyer. Catherine is the most interesting character in the novel.

The overall structure of the novel makes sense and is easy to follow, but the Graduate of Oxford struggles with composition. There is nothing wrong with including tales of Italian Resurgence in a novel about English divorce as long as it is clear to the reader how these tales contribute to the main theme of the novel.  This is lacking. The narrative is also broken by characters’ backstories which do not seem to contribute much to the main story (chapter 11 and most lengthily chapters 15-17) and by anecdotal episodes which have tenuous links to the main plot (chapters 10, 18, 23, 25). A more skilful writer would have woven these into the narrative to produce a more integrated and satisfying reading experience. The Law of Divorce is a clunky, lumpy novel.  It is a very good example of bad composition.