Sheryl Craig is an Austen scholar with a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century British literature from the University of Kansas. She’s a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and editor of JASNA News. Sheryl has published articles in Persuasions, Persuasions On-Line, The Explicator, and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine, and on the websites of the Jane Austen Centre and Chawton House Library. In 2008, Sheryl was selected to be JASNA’s International Visitor, and in 2011-2012, she was JASNA’s Traveling Lecturer for the Central Region. She has presented at regional and national JASNA conferences and to the Scottish branch of the Jane Austen Society. I’m happy to share with you her post on Mansfield Park and divorce.
Mr. Rushworth had no difficulty in procuring a divorce; and so ended a marriage contracted under such circumstances as to make any better end the effect of good luck not to be reckoned on. She had despised him, and loved another; and he had been very much aware that it was so. The indignities of stupidity, and the disappointments of selfish passion, can excite little pity. His punishment followed his conduct, as did a deeper punishment the deeper guilt of his wife. He was released from the engagement to be mortified and unhappy, till some other pretty girl could attract him into matrimony again, and he might set forward on a second, and, it is to be hoped, more prosperous trial of the state: if duped, to be duped at least with good humour and good luck; while she must withdraw with infinitely stronger feelings to a retirement and reproach which could allow no second spring of hope or character.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 48 (www.mollands.net)
In the Western world in the twenty-first century, infidelity no longer shocks us, and adultery has ceased to be, as Edmund Bertram describes it in Mansfield Park, a “dreadful crime.” Today, if Maria Rushworth left her husband in order to take up residence with Henry Crawford, her family might be initially surprised, but not as devastated by the scandal as they are in Jane Austen’s novel. The modern Bertram clan would probably take Mary Crawford’s pragmatic advice to say nothing to the couple themselves and “let things take their course.” Divorce has lost its sting.
In Jane Austen’s day, divorce was not only considered immoral and illegal, it was financially devastating to the wife and costly to her alleged lover, and, although the woman’s lover could pay his debt to society and begin again, the stigma of immorality and criminality followed the woman for the rest of her life. The legal jargon for an adultery case was “criminal conversation,” usually abbreviated to crim.con, and while the wife had broken the law by her infidelity, the courts, and society in general, turned a blind eye to the adultery or adulteries of the husband in the case. Samuel Johnson expressed the prevailing view: “a husband’s infidelity is nothing” because he “imposes no bastards upon his wife.” A woman’s adultery was quite another thing, and a man who dared to dally with another man’s wife was generally fined between £5,000 and £10,000, to be paid to the husband he had distressed and embarrassed.
By the time Jane Austen published Mansfield Park in 1814, divorce had become a predictable process which began with a legal separation from bed and board in the Civil Courts and progressed, still as a legal separation, through the Ecclesiastical Courts of the Church of England. The final, third step was to petition Parliament with a divorce bill, which had to be passed by both houses of Parliament and signed by the King, just like any other law. Each divorce bill was individual and unique, written for the petitioner, who was the husband. Women could not petition Parliament, so a woman could not divorce her husband. She could only be divorced by him.
By the time Jane Austen was born, about one marriage in 3,000 ended up in court, and Parliament divorced, on average, two couples a year. The average divorce required two or three years to work its way through the legal system. Both Civil Courts and Ecclesiastical Courts sanctioned “separation from bed and board,” that is, a legal separation, but Civil Courts had no authority to terminate a marriage, and Ecclesiastical Courts refused to do so; therefore, separated spouses remained legally married.
At the Civil Courts, at the King’s Bench in London, a crim.con trial was actually a case between two men, the husband and the wife’s alleged lover, also known as the “gallant.” At least two witnesses had to be produced to testify to the wife’s adultery, although sexual intercourse did not have to be proven. The probability or possibility of adultery was sufficient, and the evidence was often extremely flimsy. Something as simple as a letter or an act of intimacy, like Julia Bertram’s observation of Henry Crawford holding her sister’s hand, would hold up in court as proof of adultery in a crim.con case. After hearing the judge’s summation, the jury generally decided a case in a few minutes by whispering among themselves in the jury box. Twenty minutes was considered a lengthy deliberation, and most adultery cases ended in the Civil Courts with separation from bed and board and the husband’s financial compensation.
The court usually granted the adulterous wife her “pin money,” the amount specified in her marriage settlement for the wife’s annual clothing allowance and pocket money. This was rarely more than £200 to £300 a year. By way of comparison, the Dashwood women in Sense and Sensibility feel impoverished with an annual income of £500.
The next step, if one chose to or could afford to take it, was further prosecution of the crim.con case in the Ecclesiastical Courts, the Doctors’ Commons. The Ecclesiastical Court tended to be the wife’s best chance of getting a sympathetic hearing, as it was the only time the husband’s adultery or cruelty were considered at all relevant. Ecclesiastical Courts took only written depositions from the husband, his wife, and the wife’s lover. The written deposition, however, at least gave the wife a chance to tell her side of the story. She could not even testify in her own defense in the Civil Court. The Ecclesiastical Court could overturn the rulings of the Civil Court to find in the wife’s favor, but they generally upheld the Civil Court’s ruling.
Petitioning Parliament for a divorce was expensive and embarrassing, but a divorce finally terminated the marriage and allowed the husband to gain full access to his wife’s dowry. While married or legally separated, the husband received only the interest from his wife’s dowry, but in a divorce predicated on the wife’s adultery, the wife in the case had violated her marriage contract and broken the law, which caused the dowry to default, in its entirety, to her husband. Maria Rushworth’s divorce case was financially a worst-case scenario for a woman; as Sir William Blackstone records in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, “in case of elopement, and living with an adulterer, the law allows [the wife] no alimony.”
Additionally, the divorced husband was now free to remarry. Technically, the remarriage of the wife was a matter for the husband, as the injured party, to decide. Denying the wife the option of remarriage was considered to be part of her punishment for committing the crime of adultery, and it was up to the husband to add a clause to his divorce bill giving his wife permission to marry again, if he chose to do so. The husband could also specify that his ex-wife could remarry but not any particular man or men named in the divorce bill. So Mr. Rushworth could grant Maria the right to remarry, but not to marry Henry Crawford, or his divorce bill could forbid Maria to remarry at all. The House of Lords would have upheld either stipulation, but the House of Commons would probably have argued the remarriage clause. Their position, which was the same as the Bishops of the Church of England, was that if the wife could not remarry, she was effectively condemned to a life of further immorality and prostitution. Legally, however, the husband was within his rights.
Most husbands added clauses which allowed their wives to remarry, but it was from purely selfish motives. If the divorced woman became another man’s wife, she also became his financial burden, so the ex-husband’s alimony payments ended with the ex-wife’s remarriage. James Rushworth, however, the richest character in an Austen novel, significantly richer even than Fitzwilliam Darcy, would not be at all motivated by financial incentives. Rushworth will be pocketing Maria’s dowry, every penny of it, and, because of her flagrant adultery, he will not be paying his ex-wife alimony anyway.
Mary Crawford predicts that “when once married [to her brother], and properly supported by her own family, people of respectability as they are, [Maria] may recover her footing in society to a certain degree. In some circles, we know, she would never be admitted.” A divorced woman could not be presented at court or publicly acknowledged by members of the royal family, so she was denied access to the most fashionable dinners, balls, and drawing rooms, but the rest of society also shunned her. Maria Rushworth would be no more welcome at a society hostess’s home than Admiral Crawford’s mistress. Some divorced aristocrats lived on the fringes of upper-class society, and, as Henry Crawford’s wife, Maria could, as Mary Crawford suggests, attempt to reestablish herself socially “with good dinners, and large parties.” However, most of the people Maria invited would either politely decline or bluntly refuse her hospitality.
Whether because of the remarriage clause in her divorce act or because of Henry Crawford’s indifference, the ex-Mrs. Rushworth is forced to accept the fact that she will never become Mrs. Henry Crawford. At the end of Mansfield Park, Maria Rushworth resigns herself to the fate of the vast majority of ex-wives in Regency England when she disappears into obscurity. Sir Thomas Bertram assumes the financial burden of providing for his daughter, although legally he has no obligation to do so.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Ryder Kessler and Sheila Johnson Kindred. This week, in honour of Jane Austen’s birthday, there’s one post per day.
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