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The View from the Keyhole

Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660–1753

by Lawrence Stone
Oxford University Press, 281 pp., $35.00

Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 1660–1857

by Lawrence Stone
Oxford University Press, 355 pp., $35.00

The dedicated social historian is second cousin to the tabloid journalist.

—Sir Geoffrey Elton

Lawrence Stone’s choice of epigraph could hardly be more appropriate. His two volumes on marriage and divorce are as determined an intrusion into the privacy of the past as modern historiography can offer. Stone has already written an excellent general account of marriage and divorce in early modern England, vividly illustrated with colorful, not to say lubricious, material.* Now he offers two collections of case studies of matrimonial disasters in England between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.

His justification for continuing to peer through the keyholes of early modern bedrooms is that it enables him to give the readers “a unique and privileged view into otherwise hidden areas of thought and behaviour,” and “a deeper and more intimate insight into the psychology, behaviour, and even speech of actors in the past than can be obtained from any other source.” Any self-respecting paparazzo would say the same.

Stone’s painstaking excavation of the lusts and miseries of people long dead is meant to serve a serious purpose, but he does not pretend that his exposures are a painful duty. On the contrary, he tells us frankly that they are meant to be read “for illumination and pleasure.” He derives unconcealed enjoyment from the human comedy and he manages to transmit that enjoyment to the reader.

The two collections of case studies are intended to illustrate the themes sketched out in Road to Divorce. Uncertain Unions is concerned with the workings of a marriage law whose uncertainties and ambiguities were such that, in Stone’s words, “very large numbers of perfectly respectable people in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries could never be quite sure whether they were married or not.” Broken Lives documents the legal difficulties and personal conflicts involved in bringing unsatisfactory marriages to an end. Both volumes are based on a vast amount of labor, much of it by a research assistant, in the records of the ecclesiastical courts: the Consistory Courts, which heard cases in the first instance, and the Court of Arches, which dealt with them on appeal. Another research assistant has combed the records of the Old Bailey for bigamy cases. Stone has also made extensive use of unpublished private correspondence, along with gossipy published sources, like the letters of Horace Walpole and the scandalous Town and Country Magazine (1769–1793).

The results of these researches are three dozen or so self-contained stories of couples whose marital difficulties involved themselves, their families, friends, and lovers, in painful litigation and publicity, from which in most cases only the lawyers are known to have benefited. The social spread of the people involved in Uncertain Unions is fairly broad, but Broken Lives is almost exclusively confined to the aristocracy and the mega-rich, for they were the only ones who could afford to be involved in protracted divorce litigation. This, of course, is the social class which Stone knows best. Some of his stories are about celebrated cases which attracted much attention at the time. But most will be quite new even to students of the period.

The colorful stories do not add much to what Road to Divorce has already taught us about the matrimonial law of early modern England, but they vividly bring out its human and financial implications. Uncertain Unions shows that private marriage contracts were legally binding but often very difficult to prove. If either partner had a motive for wriggling out of the marriage, even after many years, it was often easy to argue that the union had never been properly made. This was a standard ploy of bigamists. Many women were successfully discarded when their husbands tired of them, on the grounds that there was no evidence that they had been validly married in the first place.

Stone tells the story of Susan Forbes, a strong-minded, if unscrupulous, maidservant, who was the castoff mistress of George Mordaunt, a lapsed Catholic priest and younger brother of the third Earl of Anglesea. Furious at being so lightly abandoned, she raised money from her fellow Catholics, who resented the conversion of the Mordaunts to Anglicanism, and from others who hoped for a share of the profits. In 1709 she embarked upon an elaborate conspiracy, involving hired witnesses, perjury, and multiple impersonations, in an attempt to blackmail her ex-lover by claiming to be married to him. She failed, but she was able to harass the family with litigation in three different jurisdictions over nearly four years.

Conversely, adventurers and confidence tricksters could readily entrap unwary, unprotected, or intoxicated individuals into clandestine unions which were subsequently impossible to dissolve. Stone has some poignant stories of seductions, abductions, and elopements. He evokes the seedy world of disreputable clergy who conducted clandestine marriages in the Fleet prison and of brutal local officials who forced innocent men to marry pregnant women in order to save the parish the cost of maintaining them and their children. He points out that until clandestine marriage was abolished in 1753, it was “extraordinarily easy…for a young couple in a moment of enthusiasm to run off and get indissolubly married for life in defiance of their parents.”

Sometimes they would regret the action hours later, as can be seen in the case of Catherine May, a Suffolk teenager who slipped out of her father’s house one morning in 1706 and galloped off to marry Joseph Beaumont, only to discover that same night that her new husband was suffering from both venereal disease and septicemia; he died ten days later. Some aristocratic families were so plagued by clandestine marriages, real or alleged, that it is amazing that Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, requiring witnesses, advance notice, and the consent of parents to the marriage of minors, should have been so long in coming.

Comparable inadequacies in the law of divorce provide the background for the stories told in Broken Lives. A woman who left her husband could continue to run up debts in his name for her maintenance. On the other hand, once a legal separation was made, the wife, however innocent, had no right to see her children. Marital breakdown among the upper classes automatically provoked ferocious quarrels between the two families about the consequent financial arrangements. Since the equity court, the common law courts, and the ecclesiastical courts all had jurisdiction over marital matters, it was possible to spin out the resulting litigation for many years. Stone’s case studies illustrate the human consequences of this tangled situation in vivid detail.

They also show that domestic violence is no invention of the twentieth century. Stone has horrific stories of drunken husbands who swore at their wives, beat them, tied them to the bedpost, chained them to the floor, commanded them to have intercourse in the presence of servants, threatened to send them to a private mad-house, or turned them out of the house in their petticoats in the middle of the night. There were married men who could not keep their hands off their maid-servants, who infected their spouses with venereal disease, and whose usual mode of address was “God damn you, you bitch!” They felt themselves at complete liberty to keep a mistress if they pleased, but if they suspected their wives of infidelity their rage knew no bounds. When in 1793 William Middleton, a Catholic Yorkshire gentleman, found that his wife was having an affair with her groom, he ordered her out of the house, forbade her access to her five children, including a young baby, and commanded his servant to “knock out the brains of her horse Top with a hatchet and hang her dog Hector.”

The adulterous entanglements that so often preceded these marital breakdowns are narrated by Stone with undisguised relish. Since upper-class women lived surrounded by servants, it was not easy to conduct an affair in privacy. A sense of propriety, coupled with fear of discovery, usually prevented a woman from taking her lover to the matrimonial bed, so clumsy couplings took place in the dining-room or drawing room. The door was either locked, which immediately invited suspicion, or left open, with the inevitable risk of discovery. Half a dozen dining chairs might be assembled to make a serviceable though uncomfortable couch. Alternatively, there was the floor. Either location involved the risk of leaving behind telltale bits of clothing.

Some couples conducted their liaisons in the open air, in a moving carriage with the blinds down, though at risk of breaking the axle by their exertions. Others were observed in the greenhouse or under the hedge. Stone has operatic scenes of lovers jumping down from the bedroom windows of country houses, only to be intercepted by servants lurking in the garden. He also includes a charming vignette of the forty-nine-year-old Lady Cadogan fleeing with her lover, a twenty-seven-year-old clergyman, in a chaise to the West Country but easily recognizable en route because she was carrying a birdcage containing two bullfinches.

Stone is a superb narrator. His prose is lucid, vivid, and incisive, and he can achieve some richly comic effects. He gives a beguiling picture of Lord Talbot, the Duchess of Beaufort’s lover, asking in 1742 whether his latest illegitimate child was “of a right shape” and, on being assured that it was “a very fair child and a very pretty child,” remarking complacently, “I have never had one that was not pretty.” We even have the Duke of Beaufort’s public test for impotence, in which his grace was required to give visual evidence of his sexual capacity before an audience comprising two physicians, three surgeons, and the Dean of Arches. Stone, poker-faced, says this event was made possible by “the growth at that time of the Baconian stress upon experimental proof rather than deductive reasoning.” Many readers will enjoy these books for the titillating pleasures they afford; others may be repelled by their coarseness, violence, and brutality. No one will be bored; and those seeking a colorful guide to the sexual escapades of the Hanoverian aristocracy need look no further.

More demanding readers will find that the narratives throw a great deal of incidental light on many aspects of eighteenth-century life, from wetnursing and letter-writing styles to village feasts and the history of dueling. Many well-known figures appear, like the Duchess of Cleveland, formerly Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine, Charles II’s mistress, whom “Beau” Feilding married in 1705 while simultaneously making love to her granddaughter and being trapped into a bigamous marriage with a prostitute. Stone also has a chapter on her grandson, the Duke of Grafton, the only eighteenth-century prime minister to divorce, his wife while in office and live openly with a notorious courtesan.

The Restoration rake and playwright, Sir Charles Sedley, appears as an elderly roué, still pursuing young girls. Samuel Morland, famous as the seventeenth-century inventor of a water pump, a calculating machine, and a speaking trumpet, is found making a clandestine marriage with another man’s ex-mistress after being deceived into thinking she was a rich heiress. There is also a “Mr. Southcote,” notable, according to a contemporary source, for his cleanliness “even to female delicacy,” his aura of perfume, and his patent leather shoes, “which particular lustre has also this innocent quality that it leaves no soil, or sign of familiarity, upon the ladies’ petticoats.” Stone misses a trick by failing to note that this was Philip Southcote, celebrated in the annals of landscape gardening for his creation of the eighteenth century’s most famous ferme ornée at Woburn Park Farm, near Chertsey.

Uncertain Unions is particularly good on servants and domestic arrangements. Stone has a sharp eye for the different nuances of life below stairs, according to whether the household was a great aristocratic one with thirty to fifty employees, mostly men, with specialized functions and organized hierarchically, or a gentry establishment with ten or twelve men and women, with varied functions and an obscure hierarchy, or just a middle-class household with two or three servants, usually women.

Adultery within the household could polarize the servants, forcing them to decide whether their loyalty lay with their master, who employed them, or their mistress, to whom they might feel a personal loyalty. It also gave them the opportunity for bribes and blackmail. In divorce cases the servants appear repeatedly, carrying letters and billets-doux, peering through keyholes, lurking in shrubberies, avidly inspecting the sheets on the bed for telltale impressions of bodies and incriminating stains (too low down in the bed to be “spilled chicken broth,” as one loyal maid alleged). Below stairs there was incessant gossip, flirtation, drunkenness, and jockeying for position. Stone claims that the attitude of servants to their employers changed during the period. By the early nineteenth century, he says, “servants were neither as submissive to their superiors, nor as protective of adulterous wives, as they had once been.” Their loyalty was now to the cash nexus.

Stone’s writing has always been notable for sweeping generalizations of this kind, invariably suggestive, but sometimes unprovable or even wrong. These two volumes show how good he is at miniature painting; but he cannot resist thebroad brush. On the basis of one, surely untypical, case, when a London organ-maker’s wife acted as a virtual procuress to her own daughters, apparently in order to capture them rich husbands, Stone asserts that unmarried girls were allowed a remarkable degree of sexual freedom. He regards it as characteristic of “courting procedures among the middling sort in about the year 1700” for suitors to be allowed to share their beds though without engaging in full sexual intercourse. Indeed he asserts that such “bundling” was “an all but universal practice” among the lower and middle classes, right up to the smaller gentry. He also suggests that the moral restraint which the custom required was breakingdown by the beginning of the eighteenth century, with a consequent increase inpremarital conceptions and bastards. Yet the evidence for such customary “bundling” in England (as opposed to Wales) is extremely slight. Indeed the word wasnever used in England in that sense during this period.

More plausible is Stone’s suggestion that the eighteenth century saw a conflict in upper-class families between older traditions of patriarchal control of marriage, governed by financial considerations, and newer ideals of companionate marriage and romantic love. He identifies a particularly difficult transitional period, when “relations between the sexes seem to have been at their most brutal.” Unfortunately, the force of this observation is marred by its imprecision, for, at different points in the two books, the period in question is variously said to have been 1660–1710, 1675–1710, 1680–1710, and 1680–1720. In one extravagant passage which might have strayed from 1066 and All That, Stone writes: “The period between 1660 and 1710 was an exciting but sinister age, when in the aftermath of the failed Puritan revolution high and low society appeared for a time to have lost their moral bearings. The villains appear larger than life, and the victims ridiculously gullible. Everybody was busy chasing everyone, in hot pursuit of money, sex, or power.”

Underlying such hyperbole is a relentless determination not to romanticize the past, accompanied by an understandable cynicism generated by prolonged immersion in legal proceedings. Stone has encountered “a seamy London underworld of venal and drunken clergymen and easily corrupted witnesses, all willing to swear to anything if adequately rewarded.” He has been shocked by “the brazen fabrication of evidence based entirely on fraud, forgery, and perjury.” He concludes that “between 1660 and 1860 there is a clear trend toward ever greater ingenuity in trickery, perjured evidence, and collusion.” The law comes very badly out of his case studies, with its mess of competing jurisdictions which made it possible to prolong disputes intolerably. The legal battle between the Marquis and Marchioness of Westmeath, which is the final case in Broken Lives, involved at least seventeen different lawsuits before eleven or more different tribunals, embracing all three legal systems, and lasted from 1819 to 1834.

Another cause of Stone’s cynicism is the assumption of some late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century aristocrats that marriage was important as a means of transmitting property but largely irrelevant to personal relationships and sexual gratification. When criticized by his wife for consorting with a well-known courtesan, the Duke of Grafton acknowledged the fact, but professed himself

most grossly injured by anyone who can imagine that for any attachment of what nature soever I should have dissolved a family union of the kind ours ought to have been.

Mr. Southcote put it even more directly when urging another courtesan to become his mistress: marriage, he wrote, “is a trick devised only to preserve names and estates…. These are contracts we enter into for convenience.” It is not surprising that Stone draws attention to the similarity between this ruthless and mercenary attitude to human relationships displayed by some of his subjects and that to be found in the plays of Shadwell and Vanbrugh or the novels of Defoe.

Two obvious questions remain to be asked about these case studies. How representative are they and how accurately has Stone recounted them? As to their representativeness, we have already seen in the case of “bundling” that individual instances can mislead. One need only open today’s daily newspaper to see that one cannot generalize about the sexual and matrimonial behavior of a whole society on the basis of the cases which appear in the law courts. Stone has inevitably had to concentrate largely upon the upper classes and he has chosen to examine some of the best-publicized and longest-running lawsuits of the period. Moreover, his case studies include a disproportionate number of confidencemen, tricksters, psychopaths, and sexual athletes: it would be wrong to regard “Beau” Feilding and the Duchess of Cleveland as typical, even of their own social class. By definition, his cases relate to marriages that went wrong, not to the ones that went right. Nevertheless, even the most sensational lawsuits can illuminate the workings of the legal system and the generally held assumptions of the age. There is no reason why they should not be regarded as important historical evidence. Micro-history is all the rage nowadays and the case study has a good deal to be said for it.

But how accurately has Stone rendered the behavior and circumstances of all parties to these lawsuits? Without plowing through mounds of unpublished documents it is impossible to say, though there are occasional hints which suggest that Stone’s attention to detail is sometimes less then meticulous. His mind is synthetic rather than analytic. He likes to strike out with bold assertions rather than to agonize over nuances and minutiae. When first confronted by a mass of conflicting and repetitive legal documentation, running in one extreme instance to over half a million words, his instinct is to construct a single, easily understood story which will reduce the case to its essentials while remaining colorful enough to entertain his readers. As he puts it, “This huge, chaotic, and often repetitious outpouring of raw data has had to be compared, sorted out, rearranged, reorganized, and compressed into a coherent narrative, with allowances made for possible alternative interpretations.”

In constructing this “coherent narrative,” Stone has put himself in the position of the omniscient judge. He has no difficulty in deciding that one woman was “head over heels in love, and consumed by sexual and romantic passion,” whereas another was characterized by “her recklessness, her financial extravagance, and her insatiable sexual appetite.” He busies himself in separating truth from falsehood, identifying perjury and forgery, distinguishing lies and fantasy from hard evidence. This, of course, is what historians do all the time. But these days, when so many historical practitioners and literary theorists are obsessed by the difficulty of getting beyond the text and distinguishing between “truth” and “fiction,” it seems slightly oldfashioned to ignore the possibility that in many of these cases there was no single “truth.”

It is a pity that Stone has passed by the opportunity to reconstruct at least a few of his cases from more than one point of view, distinguishing the wife’s version of events from that of the husband or from those of their respective families. Some of his stories could have been dissected so as to show how each of the parties made sense of the events in which they were involved. That would have been an achievement which historians of women would have particularly valued. As it is, we have to be content with a single view, albeit the view of one of the most fertile and provocative historians of our time.

  1. *

    Road to Divorce: England 1530–1987, reviewed in The New York Review, March 7, 1991.

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