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.)
"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.
Reading Group Guide
BACK-STORY AND READERS GUIDE
Interview with the Author
How did you come to write Wedlock?
Wedlock is my second book and also my second relating the life of an eighteenth-century personality. After writing my first book, The Knife Man, about the eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter, I was scouting around for another idea. I was still drawn to the colorful world of medical history and spent many weeks pottering around dusty medical archives when suddenly Mary Eleanor Bowes burst into my life.
I had had a brief encounter with Mary Eleanor Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore, in writing my first book. She was a friend of John Hunter and donated to him the skin of a giraffe that had been brought back from an expedition she had sponsored to southern Africa. I knew no more about her until the curator of the Hunterian Museum in London, where John Hunters human and animal body parts are exhibited, mentioned that the countess had a fascinating story of her own. Not expecting much, I ordered a few books–accounts of the divorce case and the kidnapping trials published at the time–when I next visited the British Library. I could scarcely believe what I read. The shocking story of an accomplished heiress who was tricked into marrying an Irish scoundrel by a fake duel, her wretched married life, her audacious escape and landmark legal battles, and–most staggering of all–her abduction by her estranged husband from a busy London street, seemed like the stuff of fiction. I was hooked. Immediately I dropped the other ideas I had been exploring and began a detective trail exploring Mary Eleanor Bowess life and times.
For the next two years I devoted myself to researching and writing Mary Eleanors story, visiting her childhood home of Gibside in northeast England, where her house is still in ruins, and the romantic Glamis Castle belonging to her first husband in Scotland, where the late Queen Mother was brought up, as well as trawling through countless boxes of letters, diaries, bills, and even schoolbooks in various archives. It has been an enthralling journey.
What made you want to write a book about the Countess of Strathmore?
Above all, it was the action-packed story that initially inspired me to write about Mary Eleanor. I am a journalist by training and I know a good yarn when I hear one. But as I got deeper into my research I became fascinated by the themes that the story illuminated–how our ideas about marriage have changed, why divorce has risen from the eighteenth century onwards, arguments about child custody and womens rights–all issues that are just as topical today. I find the eighteenth century compelling for this contradiction: so many of the customs, fashions, and characters seem bizarre and eccentric to us today and yet so many of the concerns–celebrity, relationships, media obsession–are exactly the same.
What original sources did you use in the research?
I was extremely lucky to find a rich treasure trove of material in archives, particularly at Glamis Castle. I made seven trips to Scotland, where I plowed through dozens of boxes of neatly tied bundles of letters, accounts, and legal documents that had to be transported for me from Glamis Castle (where they are kept in a cold and inhospitable turret) to Dundee University. Reading Marys letters and the replies to her from her lawyers, her family, her tenants, and her friends helped me piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her marriage and divorce. In earlier biographies–all by male authors–she had been depicted as vain, selfish, and gullible and it was reading her descriptions of her ordeal in her own words that brought to life the intelligent, compassionate, and much-wronged woman to whom I felt a strong connection. Some of the items–particularly the little bills for shoes, clothes, and medical treatment for the five Strathmore children–were very poignant. Often it is a small specific detail–like the bill which mentioned lettuce for the young tenth earls tortoise–that can bring out the human element in a story.
Were there any problems in writing the book?
One of the difficulties was trying to understand what attracted people–women and men–to Andrew Robinson Stoney when obviously he was such a villain. How could they be so easily fooled? It helped to read the desperate letters of Anne Massingberd, whom he seduced between his two marriages, that plainly revealed that women were totally besotted with him. Evidently, he possessed some strong magnetism that women found hard to resist. It was also challenging to unravel the complexities of the eighteenth-century legal world and understand the botany of southern Africa, but I was lucky to find experts in both fields who helped me.
Were you surprised to discover the limits on womens freedom and rights?
My last book centred very much on the mens world of eighteenth-century medicine and science. Researching Wedlock brought home to me that the eighteenth century in general was indeed a mans world. I hadnt realized the extent to which girls and women were effectively ruled by their fathers and then their husbands. Not only were womens lives generally governed by men, they really had no legal status at all, so their property, their income, and even their children all belonged to men. The stories of babies and young children being taken from their mothers and handed over to their fathers when couples divorced–often never seeing their mothers again–were harrowing to read, especially as a mother myself. What was perhaps more surprising, though, was how many women spoke out against their lack of rights and how many became celebrated, respected, and powerful figures despite the legal and societal restraints. I have huge admiration for women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Mary Eleanor Bowes, who refused to accept the status quo and stood up for their principles.
What was life like for an intelligent, highly educated wealthy woman in mid-eighteenth-century Britain?
Highly frustrating, I imagine. The few women like Mary Eleanor, who were sufficiently privileged to enjoy a full and rounded education, could hold their own in salon conversations about science and the arts. But they were barred from any serious involvement in either the scientific or arts worlds, unable to join organizations like the all-male Royal Society, and disparaged if they tried to compete on equal terms in writing poetry or books. Several women, like Hannah More, Elizabeth Carter, and Mary Wortley Montagu, did earn respected reputations for their learning but they were also viewed as oddities and unfeminine. As the Bishop of London said: “Nothing, I think, is more disagreeable than learning in a female.” Having said that, Mary Eleanor would probably have been relatively happy had she been allowed the freedom at least to pursue her passion for botany and her love of writing; both were stifled by her successive husbands.
1. Mary Eleanor Bowes was brought up by her father to be a self-confident, ambitious, and clever girl. Thanks to him she enjoyed an education only normally provided for the sons of aristocratic families and through his wealth she enjoyed a pampered, privileged youth. Was this upbringing and education her downfall? Did it make her a poor judge of character, naively assuming that those who pandered to her needs had genuine affection for her? Or was it her final strength, which gave her the self-belief to escape and fight back against her bullying second husband?
2. Mary Eleanor married her first husband, the ninth earl, with romantic expectations of a loving, harmonious marriage. She was just 16 when she became engaged and had led a largely closeted life. Steeped in romantic fiction, she was captivated, she said, by his “beauty” and a “vision” in which he appeared to her (page 42). He was older, sexually experienced, and worldly wise, having enjoyed a tempestuous affair with an Italian contessa (page 73). Was their marriage doomed from the start? Whose fault was it that the marriage failed and Mary ultimately sought affection in an affair? Did you feel any sympathy toward the earl? What role did the earls brother, Thomas Lyon, play in the relationship and was the two brothers closeness perhaps a factor in the failure of Mary and the earls marriage?
3. Mary Eleanor herself confessed she was not fond of her three sons although later in life she tried to patch up her relationship with them. Was her initial distance from them an inevitable result of customs in eighteenth-century wealthy families? The children were wet-nursed, looked after by nursemaids and governesses, then sent away to boarding school. Was it perhaps a flaw in Marys personality or a result of her own pampered upbringing?
4. Andrew Robinson Stoney, later Bowes, was undoubtedly one of historys worst husbands and biggest scoundrels–a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, a bully, and a fraud. He seemingly had a relatively normal upbringing for the period in a generally happy family with fairly liberal parents. His own father called him “the most wretched man I ever knew” (page 239), yet the poignant letters from Anne Massingberd (pages 109 and 142) reveal his obvious attraction to women. What could possibly have caused his extraordinary personality traits? How would someone like him operate today? Would he perhaps have been diagnosed with a psychotic personality disorder? And why was he so successful in seducing women? Are men like him still attractive to women today?
5. Mary Eleanor Bowes was vilified during the divorce cases as an outrageous libertine, an ungrateful wife and a hard-hearted mother. In biographies since her death she has been portrayed as a silly, vain, and naive female who, to a greater or less extent, received her just desserts in her miserable second marriage. Is there any justification in these descriptions or are these just male interpretations of a woman who sought a liberated lifestyle? Did she bring her misfortunes on herself? How would a woman today who followed a similar lifestyle be treated?
6. Mary Eleanor endured eight years of almost unspeakable abuse and torment at the hands of her second husband. Why did she not confide in anyone for most of this time? Why did she wait so long before leaving him? Was this mainly a result of her reluctance to leave her children, her fear of societys condemnation and the financial deprivations she knew she would incur, or was there any element of hoping her husband would change? When writing her Confessions she seemed hopeful she could convince him of her devotion while mindful of her duty to obey him (page 151). Was she still partly in love with him or was she terrified he would come after her? Why do some women today continue to live with abusive husbands?
7. Most marriages in the first half of the eighteenth century among wealthy and landed families were arranged by parents as advantageous financial matches. Some were forced on young people. Gradually during the century views changed so that the idea of marrying for love and the ideal of a harmonious companionate marriage–our modern western idea–became the norm. Some commentators blamed this change on the rise of the novel pedaling romantic ideas of love and the promotion of self-expression. Can novels have such a profound impact on society? Did the ideal of a blissfully happy marriage–the novels perfect ending–set up unrealistic expectations in couples? Was this the reason for rising divorce rates from the eighteenth century onwards and is that necessarily a bad thing?
8. During the eighteenth century, reading and writing books and other forms of literature became an important vehicle for enabling women to express their views. Women met in literary salons like the famous blue-stocking club–prototypes for todays reading groups–and some women enjoyed success in writing poetry and especially novels. So how do books play a role–then and now–in empowering women? Can literary gatherings or reading groups help in emancipating–or subverting–women?