A Short Post About Victorian Divorce Law

No, wait! Don’t go. It’s more interesting than it sounds.

Did you know that, before the Matrimonial Causes Act changed everything in 1857, it was almost impossible to get a divorce in England? Miserable couples back then needed an act of parliament before they could get shot of each other, and that cost way more money than most people had.

Even after civil divorce became possible in 1857, the genders weren’t treated equally. A man could sue his wife on the grounds of adultery, but a woman couldn’t divorce her husband for adultery alone. She needed additional grounds, such as desertion, cruelty, incest, or criminal conduct like buggery or bigamy (say that ten times fast).

Neither could she be sure of hanging onto her property. Until 1882 and the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act, most of a woman’s property and/or earnings became her husband’s (though there were ways of tying things up if a woman had a good lawyer and canny guardians). In fact, in the eyes of the law, a woman wasn’t really a person, separate from her husband; she couldn’t be forced to testify against him in court, and he was responsible for her debts as though they were his own.

At least, that’s my understanding based on the research I’ve done. And that’s the problem. You see, the criticism that comes up the most when people read Ruled by Desire is to do with historical divorce law. Either the critter is sure divorce was harder than I depict it, or they’re sure the law must have been fairer.

It’s a funny thing, what we think we know about history. I bet, for everything I’m right about, I have a misconception or mistake about something else. (Please let me know in comments if i have any facts wrong here). My main worry is always: Am I being clear enough? How do I be clear about the facts without sending my readers (largely imaginary at this point) off to sleep? And what if I’m the one who’s wrong?

Check. Double check. Then check again the next time someone questions me, I guess. And sigh about the lost contest points.

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