By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 8, 2009
The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore
By Wendy Moore
Crown. 386 pp. $25.95
W endy 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 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's 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.