Saturday, 15 March 2014

Wedlock by Wendy Moore

This is the story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, born in 1789, the attractive, educated and pampered only child of an extremely wealthy County Durham coal magnate. Her father died when she was a child and she almost immediately became a target for fortune hunters. In Georgian Britain rich people did not often marry for love, and this was the case with Mary Eleanor. Her first marriage, to the Earl of Strathmore, wasn't happy, but fairly brief; he died after they had been married for eight years. But it was idyllic compared to what happened next.

Andrew Robinson Stoney was an Irish soldier. He was handsome, charming, and extremely manipulative. He had already been married and the gossip was that he had driven his first wife to her grave by his ill-treatment. Unbelievably he tricked Mary Eleanor into marrying him by pretending that he was dying. Once they were wed he made a miraculous recovery. Mary Eleanor's life from then until the end of her marriage was a living hell.

After her marriage she no longer had any rights over her own money and Stoney kept her almost penniless. He was physically and emotionally abusive. He kept her from seeing her mother and her friends, she was often a prisoner in her own home. She was rarely given enough to eat and became thin and gaunt. She was a clever woman and had a keen interest in botany and science but Stoney prevented her from pursuing those interests.

This is all shocking enough, but what amazed me the most was that there seemed to be nothing she could do to save herself. Plenty of people knew what was going on but nobody stepped in to help her. Stoney was a master of disinformation and he let it be known that Mary Eleanor was irrational - almost deranged - and people believed him. When help finally did come it wasn't from anyone in her own social class, but her servants who rescued her. Those with the most to lose risked everything, while those with the power stood and watched.

I thought this was a fascinating and horrifying book. Domestic abuse still happens today of course, and women still stay with abusive men, through fear, or being so beaten down that they can't see a way out. But at least it's a subject that's talked about, and there are laws to protect women, and refuges for them to go to. Mary Eleanor had none of that. Though she attained a measure of peace in her later years, because of Andrew Stoney Robinson the happy life she could've had and the good she could've done in the world through her patronage of scientific endeavours never happened.

(Incidentally, Mary Eleanor's grandson John and his wife Josephine founded the Bowes Museum, which I wrote about here.)

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