Setting: C18th, England
Settling down to read his newspaper by the candlelight illuminating the dining room of the Adelphi Tavern, John Hull anticipated a quiet evening.
Mary Eleanor Bowes was born in 1749. Her father was extremely wealthy and, unusually for the time, had her well educated. A most eligible young woman, not least because she was the richest heiress in C18th Britain, and had been without her father since she was 11. Her first wedding was nothing unusual for the time. Pretty loveless and to an older man it wasn’t a romantic love match. Her second, to a dashing young soldier, was. Mary Eleanor probably hadn’t intended to marry Andrew Robinson Stoney, but upon hearing that he had fought a duel for her honour and was laying on his deathbed wishing for nothing but her hand in marriage… well, who could resist that romance!
Of course if it had been a whirlwind romance ending in happy ever after there would have been no book by Wendy Moore.
Instead of her husband slipping the mortal coil, Bowes found herself bound to a cruel, gambling, wife-beating, adulterous crook, one who now had complete control over her and her children from her previous marriage. And of course, over all her former wealth, for once married a woman had no legal rights to own property. In many ways she ceased being a separate entity from her husband.
It took me almost a month to get through this biography. Not because the book was dull or plodding, far from it, simply because I always like to take my time when reading non-fiction. In the case of this book it really is a case of truth being stranger than fiction, the only difference between this and a “romantic” novel is the extremes to which Stoney went to in order to exert his control over his wife. His constant mistresses bore numerous children to him. Almost no female servant was safe from his sexual assaults, and then were left with no real options in life but to turn to prostitution in order to support themselves. And his physical and mental cruelty towards his wife seem so extreme as to be almost unbelievable. He even has her abducted in broad daylight while out shopping!
But the really incredible thing is how far the law backed up her husband’s right.
Successive court rulings made plain that husbands were entitled to confine or restrain wives who were deemed to be behaving badly through extravagance or lewdness.
And of course there was the matter of her children. Those from her previous marriage as well as those she had with Stoney;
If she tried to leave, she knew she would certainly never be allowed to see her children again; eually she could be forced back to her marital home by law only to face even worse retribution. Petrified, distraught and friendless she saw no prospect of escape.
Moore has obviously done plenty of research for this book, and it shows, but the book is never bogged down in excessive detail. It is, in many ways, a quick read. Although there is a lot of it.