With my own nuptials swiftly approaching, I’ve admittedly become a bit wedding-obsessed. In a bid to wean myself off my growing addiction to wedding magazines and wedding discussion forums, as well as to distract myself from the various seating plans, dress swatches, and rsvp cards with which I increasingly find myself surrounded, I popped into Waterstones for a browse. That I thought I could momentarily escape all things wedding related in a book shop was perhaps a little naive, but surely there had to be at least one or two books that I could flick through without reminding myself of the various to-do lists waiting for me on my desk? Realisation and resignation settled in when the first thing my eyes lit upon was Wendy Moore’s compellingly-titled exploration of marriage in eighteenth-century Britain, Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met his Match (2009). Following fast on the heels of Duchess, the 2008 cinematic rendering of the wedded trials of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Wedlock looks at the matrimonial horrors suffered by Mary Eleanor Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore. The richest heiress in late-eighteenth century England upon the death of her coal magnate father, Mary Eleanor became prey to the mercenary intents of the superficially charming but unscrupulous Irish soldier, Andrew Robinson Stoney – tellingly, the root of the contemporary expression still in use today: ‘ston(e)y broke’. Widowed at a young age upon the death of the cold and unloving Earl of Strathmore, Mary Eleanor was on the verge of marriage with her lover, George Gray, when Stoney, an inveterate performer, staged a near fatal duel, faking an apparently mortal wound and convincing Mary Eleanor to fulfil his dying wish by marrying him. When, days after their marriage, Stoney had miraculously recovered, unveiling, in the process, his less-than-genteel manner and inklings of his penchant for cruelty and sadomasochistic desire for female flesh, Mary Eleanor no doubt had ample cause to rue her decision. Over the course of their twelve-year marriage, Mary Eleanor suffered almost unspeakable brutality and cruelty: refused access to her children, forced to act coldly and indifferently to friends and family, imprisoned in her own home, and disbarred from indulging in her two passions – literature and gardening – Mary Eleanor quickly became a sickly recluse, oftentimes starved by her own husband, who nevertheless succeeded in representing himself as a long-suffering partner bowing to the capricious whims of his adored wife. Where once she promised to impact eighteenth-century society and culture with her learned soirees, her writing, and her patronage of scientists and collectors eager to explore the unknown horticulture of Asia, Africa, and Australia, Mary Eleanor seemed to outsiders to have become an eccentric embarrassment to polite society.
Against all odds, however, Mary Eleanor managed to escape the brutal circumstances in which she was practically imprisoned. With the help of a handful of servants and friends who Stoney hadn’t managed to bribe into complaisance, Mary Eleanor reclaimed her liberty but continued to live in fear of her husband for years to come – a completely unsurprising fact when we consider eighteenth-century law was stacked against her, as a woman. With the law essentially on his side, Stoney had the upperhand and continued to terrorise his wife, spying on her, undermining her credibility (as in the caricature he commissioned from James Gillray attached to this post), and even once ambushing and kidnapping her in an eventually unsuccessful attempt to force her to have sex with him and thereby nullify the divorce proceedings she had begun against him. Mary Eleanor’s story is an incredible one, not least because of its landmark status for women’s rights in eighteenth-century Britain – after years of legal wrangling and horrible betrayal and embarrassment, Mary Eleanor won her divorce from Stoney and received back the ample wealth, lands, and possessions Stoney was so keen to claim as his own. Although her triumph couldn’t give her back the years she had lost to Stoney, nor could it make Stoney completely go away, it did set an important precedent in terms of women’s rights in marriage.