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A Victorian Guide to Oppressing Women: Part 2

A portion of this post first appeared on the CrimeReads, a blog dedicated to books about crime true and fictional, around the time when MARIAN HALCOMBE was published.

This is the second half of a post discussing how truly crappy the laws were, if you were a woman in Victorian England. I delved deeply into this when I was writing the Marian series, because modern women don’t remember any more, how badly off we once were. Only if we go back fictionally may we see the oppression dramatized. And I did my best to pack all the miserable laws and expectations into the books.

We had just gotten to where women achieved the ability to get a divorce, a triumph. Since up until the middle of the 19th century it was almost unknown, the novelty did lead to some creative tabloid moments. No one had yet realized that divorce testimony should be taken behind closed doors, for instance. A great deal of startlingly dirty laundry got inadvertently aired in the popular press.

A famous example was Mrs. Isabella Robinson, who after some years in an uncongenial marriage became enamored of her doctor. It is, even to this day, not quite clear that nothing untoward ever occurred. But Mrs. Robinson had a fertile imagination and an agile pen. She recorded R-rated details about romping with the handsome doctor in her journal. But, foolishly, she didn’t keep the journal under lock and key. When her nasty husband peeked into the volume in 1858, the fat was in the fire.

Enraged, Mr. Robinson filed for one of the earliest divorces under the new law, and cited the journal entries as the plainest evidence of adultery. Were they fantasy fiction, or factual reportage? Excerpts had to be read aloud in court to resolve the question. During the trial every tidbit of juicy testimony made it into the next day’s papers, so that it was the sensation of the season. The court finally denied the petition, because both Mrs. Robinson and the medico swore on the witness stand that no intimacies had actually occurred. Without adultery there could be no divorce, right? Furthermore Mrs. Robinson was clearly insane—surely only a mentally abnormal woman could write racy things like this!—and mental illness was not an allowable cause to dissolve a marriage. The now-notorious Robinsons were stuck with each other.

Given the possibly of this kind of scandal, many people just couldn’t face the music. Even after the legal barriers fell the social costs of breaking up could be too high. Charles Dickens, age 45 lost interest in his wife of 22 years, and became enamored of an 18-year-old actress named Ellen Ternan.

But how could the creator of Little Nell and Tiny Tim divorce his wife for a teenager? Dickens had created a widely admired public persona of great charity and goodwill that didn’t comport with ditching the mother of his nine children. The idea of losing his readers, of alienating his audience, was both psychologically and financially impossible for Dickens to contemplate. He was able to engineer a legal separation in 1858 that got Mrs. Dickens out of the house. Mrs. Dickens had no choice but to accept the short end of the stick, denounced in the papers by the most popular writer of the age as a bad mother and impossible to live with. And Dickens was able to retain all his children; only his oldest was of age and could do what he wanted. (Significantly, Charles Jr. moved in with his mother.) But Dickens was never able to live with Ellen, let alone marry her. Even from the other side of town, Mrs. Dickens retained her status as his lawful wife. When Dickens died, it was Mrs. Dickens and not Ellen Ternan who got a condolence note from Queen Victoria.

Divorce leads us naturally to the broader topic of legislating social behavior, a popular Victorian obsession that usually called for controlling women. The Contagious Disease Act of 1864, for instance, was originally focused upon the readiness of the British Army and Navy. How could you maintain an empire’s fighting forces if the men kept on picking up gonorrhea? Male Victorian legislators agreed that there was no point in trying to curb the carnal drives of licentious sailors and soldiers, who were usually not allowed to marry. No, the obvious thing to do was to round up and inspect prostitutes for VD, and lock up the infected ones in a hospital to be forcibly cured. The prostitutes near the military camps or ports had no choice but to put up with it, but when the inspectors snagged respectable ladies who happened to be walking by there was an immediate outcry. Petitions with thousands of signatures were presented to Parliament and the Act was repealed in 1886.

Another long ongoing social problem was illegitimate children. This was a problem not so much because of morality, but because somebody had to pay to keep the unwed mother and bastard child from starving, and the government didn’t want to do it. Before 1834 a seduced maiden was supposed to name her seducer, and this man could be compelled to pay support. But legislators feared this was being abused—a woman could name anybody, after all. There was no DNA testing to prove who was really the father. So in 1834 the famous Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, with the broad goal of making destitution so unpleasant that people would do anything rather than apply for public assistance. Much of the legislation involved poverty relief, but a Bastardy Clause essentially made the unwed mother solely responsible for her own plight. A fallen woman was already unemployable, the plight of the heroine in Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell. Under the new law the only recourse for the unwed mother was the workhouse. This was rightly and widely feared, especially because families were broken up—the men to one side, the women to another, and the children elsewhere. The prospect was so terrifying that many pregnant young women simply resorted to infanticide or abandonment. The rates of both went up after the law passed.

You could, of course, only abandon or murder your newborn and then go back to work if you were clever enough at the outset to conceal your pregnancy. Therefore the unwed but pregnant woman was further oppressed by the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which included a section that specifically made it a misdemeanor to conceal the birth of a child. Murdering the infant of course was already a crime. Actual practice however was more humane than the law. Juries were reluctant to convict a mother of concealment or infanticide, and many of the cases were either thrown out or drew only token sentences. The larger cruelties of the Poor Law’s provisions also drew widespread protest. A scorching denunciation of the abuses of the workhouse can be found in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, for example, where the starving orphans are sustained only upon gruel until they’re farmed out to abusive employers. The outcry was such that the law was amended many times by the end of the century.

Which is consoling, in a way. Fiction does affect real life; Dickens did it. And so, we may hope, can we.


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