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Love on the Rocks in Regency England

By Amy D’Orazio

Marrying for love was gaining in popularity in regency England, but nevertheless a marriage was a business transaction. A woman was given security, the status inherent to a married woman, and the rights to her husband’s fortune, name, and family. In return, she had one sacred duty and it was particularly sacred to a landowning gentleman—to bear him a legitimate heir (emphasis on the legitimate!).

The preservation of a bloodline was no small matter amongst the noble families of nineteenth century England. Many people believed that their social status was not some accident of birth but the effect of true superiority in their lineage. Needless to say, they were anxious to preserve their superiority. When a woman married into such a family it was understood that she was taking on an important role—to continue that bloodline. It was for this reason that a woman’s innocence prior to marriage was fiercely guarded: A gentleman could not risk marrying a woman who carried another man’s child.

But what about a woman who took a lover after marriage? There were consequences that extended far beyond the gentleman’s feelings, even if he was in love with his wife. The husband would face painful legal ramifications, particularly if he was, as yet, without an heir for his property and fortune.

Having an adulterous wife was seen as a crime of property and the breaking of the nuptial contract. A woman’s body belonged to her husband; for another man to ‘use’ that body for his own pleasure was a theft and the thief, i.e. the other man, could be fined heavily for his part in the matrimonial fracas. Some men were fined up to £5000 for indiscretion with a married woman.

For the woman, however, adultery was not only a betrayal of the marriage vow but also a betrayal of the promise she had made to her husband’s family and heritage to continue his family line. In the early part of the nineteenth century, there was a strong legal presumption in favor of legitimacy; simply put, if a married woman gave birth to a child, that child was presumed to be the legitimate heir of the husband. The only way to disprove that child’s claim on the father was to show the husband was impotent, away from his wife at the time of conception, or that the couple was divorced. A husband who had been cuckolded might, in essence, give away the family estate, by virtue of having to accept his lover’s child as his heir. This made it imperative for him to take action when an illicit pregnancy was suspected.

There are many people much more knowledgeable than I am who have written about the situation of divorce and separation in regency England, so I won’t dwell on anything but the barest facts. From the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century (150 years) there were 314 divorces granted by Parliament. Of those, all but four were granted to the husband. It was expensive and lengthy, and caused massive humiliation to both parties. Divorce centred on the man’s need for a legitimate heir, so a man had only to prove simple adultery by this wife, whereas a woman had to prove adultery plus aggravating offenses by her husband. It was, in all ways, a daunting and painful process for everyone involved. A woman would never recover from the shame but the man could.

Austen’s books are wonderfully complex in the sense that not only is there always a love story but also a shadowy understory, some cautionary tale where silliness and lust lead to a dreadful fate. In Pride & Prejudice, that cautionary tale is Lydia and Wickham; in Mansfield Park, it resides in the tale of Maria Bertram and her shocking divorce.

Maria Bertram was clearly reluctant to marry Mr Rushworth and only did so for his wealth; throughout the book it is made obvious that Mr Rushworth is something of a buffoon, and there is little, if any, love lost between them. Maria is, however, captivated by the charming and handsome Henry Crawford and soon slips into an extramarital liaison, running off with her lover and causing massive and public humiliation to her husband. The elder Mrs Rushworth has no concern with trumpeting her daughter-in-law’s infidelity all around London, likely embarrassing her cuckolded son but making it an easy matter for him to obtain a divorce.

Of course, A Wilful Misunderstanding, the book that prompted this research, does not contain a divorce! Perish the thought! But the Darcys’ marriage, undertaken in haste—much unlike in canon—does hit some snags when Darcy fears Elizabeth has been unfaithful to him. Quite untrue of course!—but forgiveness is needed on both sides when it all comes out. The happily ever after is harder to come by but (I hope) much the sweeter for it!

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