My apologies for the lack of a post last week. Evidently I angered the gods because my laptop died, our internet service was down, and I couldn’t get the hamsters to run fast enough to power the antique desktop computer for backup. I tried using my phone, but it just laughed at me.
So you’ve married but everything has turned out chalk and cheese rather than peas in a pod. What’s a Regency era couple to do?
Keep on keeping on.
Suffer in silence.
Stay the course.
In other words, you’ve made your bed.
A woman who scolds her husband when in bed, is said to read him a curtain lecture.
There were three ways to get out of marriage: annulment, divorce, and death. The last is self-explanatory, so I’ll only address the first two.
The prolific and popular Regency novel trope – that of marrying for one year for -insert reason here- and then dissolving the marriage amicably as if it had never occurred…it’s also the biggest Regency novel anachronism. Unlike today, where marrying and annuling are as easy as filling out a form and paying a $25 fee to your local county clerk, annuling a marriage during the Regency came with specific prerequisite boxes to tick. Minors could not marry if they were too young (no younger than age seven, if you please) or without permission of their guardian if they were not yet one and twenty. No one could marry under a false name, or if one party was already married. These conditions constituted the annulable actions of fraud. Also, a marriage was voidable if one party was not compos mentis, meaning in control of their faculties. Lastly, a marriage was dissolvable if one party – namely the male – was incapable of performing the marriage act, i.e. impotent. The marriage did not have to be consummated to be valid, but the ability to consummate had to be present.
So, gentle reader, to annul a marriage in Regency England, there had to be fraud, incompetance, or impotence. You had to be too young, too headstrong to get your guardian’s permission, too daft, or too flaccid.
Divorce was as rare as annulments since the qualifications were just as injurious to the reputations of both spouses. Kristen Koster reports 276 divorces occurred between 1765 and 1857; after the passage of the first British divorce bill in 1697 and up through the year 1857, only four divorces were granted to women (and that not until 1801). I shudder to think how many divorces occurred last week, let alone last year, in our modern and enlightened times.
A Regency divorce was expensive, drawn-out, highly publicized, and excruciating for both parties. Divorce first had to be pursued in court as a legal separation on grounds of adultery. Next, the husband had to sue his wife’s lover for criminal conversation – often abbreviated crim. con. – which means exactly what it sounds like: another man had a criminal (he was not her husband) conversation (of the lewdest kind between unmarried people) with someone else’s wife. Today we would more politely call this ‘alienation of affection.’ If the husband proved his case, he would be awarded damanges for the illegal intercourse between his wife and her lover…but he still wasn’t divorced. No, the next step was petitioning Parliament to end the marriage, with witnesses and testimony, full of all manner of lurid and demeaning moments. Parliament would then decide a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ for a bill of divorcement. Both sides bore the brunt of society’s snub: while the man would always fare better, he was still a social outcast and no longer considered marriable. The wife, as the adultress, was completely cast from ‘good society’ and usually retreated to the anonymity of the country or, if her family allowed, her parents’ home.
The feuding couple could simply stop at the first step, that of the legal separation, but it came with its own baggage, although mostly for the wife. Don’t forget, a man could simply leave his wife anytime he chose, but she could not do the same. He could summon the law to have her fetched and returned, no questions asked. If the wife truly desired to live apart from her husband, a legal separation was her only recourse. It required the husband to pay for his wife’s financial support while removing her requirements to keep his house and occupy his bed. The price here was social ostracization for the wife, and she could never remarry should she find a more suitable mate. Any future children would be illegitimate and neither her husband nor her lover would be required to offer financial support.
Annulment and divorce were far from easy, quick, cheap, or quiet.
It was a good idea to make sure you were ready for – and even resigned to – all aspects of the marriage bed.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Once again, Regency Researcher Nancy Mayer has a wealth of knowledge to share, and I mined her trove for tidbits of diabolical marriage-dissolving methods.
- Kristen Koster has a fantastic Primer Series, especially the one on Regency Divorce and Annulments.
- Donna Hatch’s post on Annulments, Separations, Divorce, and Scandal at Historical Hussies is chock-full of facts and examples.
- For a humdinger of a contemporaneous battle, check out Mimi Matthews’s post on The Scandalous Regency Era Criminal Conversation Case of Aston v. Elliot.