Friday, July 19, 2013

A Georgian Marriage Gone Bad

One of the reasons I like setting love stories in the past is that the stakes were so high. When couples married two hundred years ago, it was for life. I was recently reading about the Georgian/regency novelist, Matthew "Monk" Lewis (a brief mention of Lewis and his most famous work, the lurid and bestselling The Monk, can be found in this earlier post on gothic horrors). The story of his parents' disastrous marriage is almost as colorful as Lewis's fiction.

Matthew Lewis (not the actor who played Neville Longbottom, but the father of the author of the same name) married Frances "Fanny" Maria Sewell in 1773, when both were twenty-three. Lewis had already earned a master's degree from Oxford and was the Chief Clerk in the War Office; in just two years, he would be the Deputy-Secretary at War. His family was wealthy, as was hers. Both owned neighboring estates in England as well as substantial property in Jamaica. The couple had four children together, of which the novelist, Matthew Gregory Lewis, was the eldest and heir. The senior Matthew Lewis seems to have been dedicated and hard-working; Maria, on the other hand, was admired, artistic, and injudicious.

The lurid plot of Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk manages to outdo the drama of his family life. ("A Monk with a Beguine," 1591, by Dutch painter Cornelis van Haarlem.)

By 1781, when little Matthew was only six, his parents' marriage wasn't going well, owing to their mismatched temperaments--and to his mother's interest in a music master named Samuel Harrison. After sleeping apart for some time, the couple decided to separate, with Lewis agreeing to generous terms that gave his wife the use of one of his houses, full custody of the children (legally, they were his to take away), and six hundred pounds a year. Before the separation was finalized, however, Lewis returned from a visit to the Duke of Dorset to discover Fanny had been flagrantly carrying on in his house with Harrison the music master, sending him into a "phrenzy."

Fanny Lewis fled. She began changing addresses and using a false name, Mrs. Langley, to avoid her husband. He was able to track her down, however, and came to confront her on July 3, 1782--which, inconveniently for Fanny, happened to be the same day she was giving birth to an illegitimate child by the music master.

Lewis sought a separation--not a private one, but a judicial separation of the sort obtained as a precursor to divorce. On February 27, 1783, Lewis was awarded his separation on the grounds of adultery. Divorces, however, were as complicated and expensive to obtain as they were rare. Lewis petitioned Parliament, and his counsel presented the facts of Fanny's adultery, but the House of Lords refused to grant the divorce.

And here's the part that's most surprising to me as a citizen of the twenty-first century: Lewis supported Fanny until his death in 1812. Why did he agree to such generous terms? Probably because it was the thing to do. A husband was expected to "keep" his wife, which meant everything from seeing that she didn't go hungry to paying her gambling debts. It was one of the fundamental expectations underlying marriage--just as wives had a duty to have sex with their husbands whether they liked it or not, husbands had a duty to support their wives financially whether they liked it or not. And since marriage was a sacrament, adultery and even separation couldn't completely erase that expectation.

Though it's slightly off-topic, I'll close with an anecdote from James Boswell's 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson that provides a little more insight into the Georgian view of marriage as immutable and permanent, no matter how messy: 
I repeated to him an argument of a lady of my acquaintance, who maintained, that her husband's having been guilty of numberless infidelities, released her from conjugal obligations, because they were reciprocal. Johnson: "This is miserable stuff, Sir. To the contract of marriage, besides the man and wife, there is a third party -- Society; and, if it be considered as a vow -- GOD: and, therefore, it cannot be dissolved by their consent alone.

Samuel Johnson was no fan of divorce. (Painting by Joshua Reynolds.)
Laws are not made for particular cases, but for men in general. A woman may be unhappy with her husband; but she cannot be freed from him without the approbation of the civil and ecclesiastical power. A man may be unhappy, because he is not so rich as another; but he is not to seize upon another's property with his own hand." Boswell: "But, Sir, this lady does not want that the contract should be dissolved; she only argues that she may indulge herself in gallantries with equal freedom as her husband does, provided she takes care not to introduce a spurious issue into his family. You know, Sir, what Macrobius has told us of Julia."*  Johnson: "This lady of yours, Sir, I think, is very fit for a brothel."
*Boswell's reference to "what Macrobius has told us of Julia" concerns a report that Augustus Caesar's daughter supposedly indulged in adultery only if she was pregnant with her husband's child: "To certain persons who knew of her infidelities and were expressing surprise at her children’s likeness to her husband Agrippa, since she was so free with her favors, she said: "Passengers are never allowed on board until the hold is full."

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's upcoming regency romance, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released on September 23. It will join her current release, Lord of Secrets, and her debut regency, Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you.

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