This post originally ran in Crimereads in May 2018. I dug extensively into this issue while researching my recent novel, and if you look into A Most Dangerous Woman you can see all these issues luridly dramatized.
In Victorian Britain women teetered on the verge of a vast change in the laws that had constrained them since medieval times. This is a quick summary of some of the major legislative gains of that period. The clever author can select the period when the laws would make for maximal fictional excitement.
Votes for women were not attained until the 20th century, but the great early feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft had pointed out how foolish it was for women to lose all identity upon marriage. Not only did the wife take her husband’s name, she lost her entire legal identity. It was in the marriage service — the couple was one flesh, and as one legal wit pointed out, that flesh was his. The husband owned his wife’s property. She could sign legal documents until she got her Mrs., and then suddenly she was incapable, and only he had the signature. A wife could not write her own will, retain the copyright of materials she had written herself, or even witness against her husband in court.
An entire separate legal industry grew up to allow prudent fathers to protect their daughters’ financial interests. A dowry ensured that she had some money of her own, and setting up the documents properly would allow her, and possibly even her children, to retain that money no matter how profligate or foolish her husband became. For us the ramifications of these developments are now most easily viewed in fiction. The classic example of the father’s failure to ensure his daughter got a proper marriage settlement might be The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. His heroine Laura got into trouble when a ramshackle marriage settlement allowed her wicked husband to steal everything after the wedding.
If you could contrive to survive your husband, however, your luck was in. Victorian widows were in the catbird seat. The widow suddenly regained all her financial power, and could control her own business and affairs. Read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope and notice how the widowed Lady Carbury has control of the family money. What there was of it – Lady Carbury has to write bad books to keep afloat, but at least she retains the copyright. She doesn’t have any control over her the antics of her spendthrift son Sir Felix, but she’s the one who pays his bills and, at the end of the book (with the help, of course of a stern new husband, because this is a Victorian novel), she can cut her son off and send him to Germany to rusticate.
After years of complaint and protest the Married Women’s Property Act passed in 1882, allowing women to own their own property even after marrying their husbands. With a separate legal identity, they could sign documents and leases, manage their own businesses, even contract debts. If a wicked husband wanted to steal his wife’s money after that year he would have to persuade her to sign it over. He couldn’t just take it the moment she said ‘I do.’
But this is getting very long — suppose I save divorce for Part 2.