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Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore
Based on probably the most scandalous divorce case of the late 18th century, Wedlock definitely makes for compelling and engrossing reading. William Thackeray was so fascinated by the proceedings that he based his novel Barry Lyndon on it. If you're looking for a well-researched and dramatic history book about spousal abuse, this is the book for you.
Synopses & Reviews
With the death of her fabulously wealthy coal magnate father when she was just eleven, Mary Eleanor Bowes became the richest heiress in Britain. An ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II, Mary grew to be a highly educated young woman, winning acclaim as a playwright and botanist. Courted by a bevy of eager suitors, at eighteen she married the handsome but aloof ninth Earl of Strathmore in a celebrated, if ultimately troubled, match that forged the Bowes Lyon name. Yet she stumbled headlong into scandal when, following her husbands early death, a charming young army hero flattered his way into the merry widows bed.
Captain Andrew Robinson Stoney insisted on defending her honor in a duel, and Mary was convinced she had found true love. Judged by doctors to have been mortally wounded in the melee, Stoney persuaded Mary to grant his dying wish; four days later they were married.
Sadly, the “captain” was not what he seemed. Staging a sudden and remarkable recovery, Stoney was revealed as a debt-ridden lieutenant, a fraudster, and a bully. Immediately taking control of Marys vast fortune, he squandered her wealth and embarked on a campaign of appalling violence and cruelty against his new bride. Finally, fearing for her life, Mary masterminded an audacious escape and challenged social conventions of the day by launching a suit for divorce. The English public was horrified–and enthralled. But Marys troubles were far from over . . .
Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was inspired by Stoneys villainy to write The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which Stanley Kubrick turned into an Oscar-winning film. Based on exhaustive archival research, Wedlock is a thrilling and cinematic true story, ripped from the headlines of eighteenth-century England.
"How did a wealthy, self-absorbed adulteress who despised her eldest son and aborted three pregnancies by a man she didn't love, transform into a devoted mother and pioneer of women's liberty? British author Moore (The Knife Man) examines this remarkable conversion in Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749 — 1800), England's richest heiress, whose impulsive marriage to a violent Irish fortune seeker revolutionized divorce in Georgian England. A published poet-playwright and accomplished botanist, Mary expected to live an indulgent life. Yet she was lured into marriage to army captain Andrew Robinson Stoney, who proved to be a rapist, liar, kidnapper and philanderer who half-starved and beat Mary into submission. Stoney's own best friend called him 'inhuman and savage, without a countervailing quality.' Moore offers a well-informed if dispiriting glimpse into 18th-century marriage and the patriarchal legal and church systems as experienced by Mary — still her husband's property and financially supported by her devoted servants — as she fought to regain her fortune, her children and, especially, her status as a person." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Wendy Moore opens this spectacular book with a spectacular scene: a duel inside the Adelphi Tavern in London in January 1777 between Henry Bate and Andrew Robinson Stoney. Bate had circulated scurrilous rumors about Mary Eleanor Bowes, "the recently widowed Countess of Strathmore," and Stoney had taken it upon himself to defend her honor. Two loud shots were heard, then the clash of swords. Men who... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) rushed to the scene found Bate slightly wounded and Stoney apparently at the verge of death. The fabulously wealthy 27-year-old widow was so moved by this act of gallantry that she rushed to the wounded soldier's bedside. Full of emotion, she acquiesced in "her dying hero's request: to marry him before he expired." After all, "what harm could possibly ensue from marrying a poor dying soldier who would shortly make her a widow again?" So married they were two days later, in St. James' Church, Piccadilly, with Stoney being carried in on his "makeshift bed." Mary, who had spent the night before "naked and alone" with her lover George Gray, was startled to note that once the vows were spoken, Stoney made a "rapid recovery" and appeared at the "jubilant levee in his lodgings the following morning" in "a new scarlet uniform." With that, "Mary was about to discover the true extent of the trap into which she had been lured." It is a true tale so wildly extravagant that when, in the summer of 1841, it was told to an ambitious young writer named William Makepeace Thackeray, he "began writing his first significant work of fiction, "The Luck of Barry Lyndon," which spun the tale of a wily, brutish and philandering Irish soldier who was ultimately outwitted by the titled heiress he had duped into wedlock." Some readers will recall that in 1975 it was made into a lush but lifeless film directed by Stanley Kubrick. But the Thackeray and the Kubrick are fiction. The story Moore tells is fact, or at least as close to fact as a scrupulous writer can get when exploring events nearly two-and-a-half centuries in the past. Moore, an experienced British journalist, writes lively and literate prose. She has done a heroic amount of research, bringing her characters to life with singular verisimilitude and portraying 18th-century courtship and marriage in full detail, never forgetting that although Mary Eleanor Bowes was uncommonly privileged and wealthy, at root her lot was that of every other woman of her day. Mary was the only daughter of a phenomenally wealthy businessman who gave her every advantage imaginable, including a will written before her first birthday that "named her as the sole heir to his vast estate and stipulated that any future husband must change his name to Bowes," thus assuring the continuation of his surname. "Cosseted from disease, indulged with toys and treats, clothed in the finest fashions, and fed on the choicest foods," Mary "grew up headstrong and precocious." Her father "was determined that his only daughter should receive the education normally enjoyed by the most privileged sons of the aristocracy," a "rare and enlightened" approach that helped her develop into a serious reader and writer as well as a "gifted botanist." Mary was still a child when her father died, leaving her "the wealthiest 11-year-old in the country." By the age of 13, "intelligent, accomplished, and self-confident, and engagingly pretty with her curling brown hair and blue-gray eyes, she quickly attracted a swarm of suitors." Hers was a time when "the question of whether to marry for money or for love had become one of the chief dilemmas of the age." With her fortune and her longing for a loving companion, Mary was caught between the two. The solution she reached — marriage on her 18th birthday to "the 28-year-old ninth Earl of Strathmore" — was a compromise, and an unhappy one: "She knew she was marrying the wrong man." The marriage produced five children but was filled with acrimony and contempt. "At a time when divorce was both rare and difficult, and separation spelled social exile, the death of a spouse was frequently the only means of escape from an unhappy marriage," and Mary escaped with joy when the earl died in 1776. She "was comfortably off and decidedly merry," notably in her ardent affair with Gray, "an unscrupulous entrepreneur who had returned from India with an enviable fortune," who got her pregnant over and over again — she ended all the pregnancies except the last "with toxic abortifacients" — and who was fully expecting to marry her until Andrew Robinson Stoney euchred her into marrying him. In so doing, he became Andrew Robinson Bowes, in accordance with her father's will. His real name, though, was Satan. He was a monster. He was "conniving and manipulative when he wanted something, arrogant and defiant when he was spurned." Mary, who had appallingly bad taste in men, was drawn into his web and very nearly died there. He beat her often and mercilessly, and "Mary knew that there was little she could do in her defense" because "during the eighteenth century wife beating was not only common and widely tolerated but even supported by law." Fortunately, her travail was witnessed by her impeccably honest personal maid. Mary, who "had come to believe — like so many women in the same situation — that her own faults and failings were somehow responsible for the miseries she now endured," told the maid the full story of her husband's abuses, with the happy consequence that "she finally had an ally." She was terrified that Bowes would institutionalize her — "Throughout the eighteenth century husbands had successfully shut away disobedient or inconvenient wives in private asylums or country houses and often won the backing of the Georgian courts" — and, indeed, she had reason to believe that, given the opportunity, he would murder her. Before he could act, though, Mary did the unthinkable: She escaped. She had no money, and as a woman she had few rights within "the male-dominated, tradition-bound society of the eighteenth century." Yet she did something else astonishing: Though at the time it was "well nigh impossible" for a woman to end a marriage, she sued for divorce and to "regain all her land, mansions, mines, and income." We know the result all along — the subtitle leaves no doubt of that — but how it came about provides the climax of this book, and a dramatic one it is. Moore tells us that the decision in Mary's favor "marked a significant victory in the lengthy process toward wives' rights to retain their own property," but what really stands out in the closing chapters of "Wedlock" is the courage that Mary summoned forth after years of unspeakable degradation. Though the yellow press of the time portrayed her as not much better than a prostitute, the person who emerges in Moore's careful portrait is honorable and brave. "Wedlock" is serious, perceptive, thoughtful and — by no means least — compulsively readable. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Wedlock" tells the dramatic true story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, whose abuse at the hands of her second husband shocked 18-century Britons and revolutionized divorce laws.
About the Author
WENDY MOORE is the author of The Knife Man. A journalist and writer specializing in health and medicine, she lives in London with her husband and two children.
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