Jan 27 2014 12:30pm

Spousal Abuse in the Regency Era

A Kiss of Lies by Bronwen EvansToday we're joined by author Bronwen Evans, whose latest release, A Kiss of Lies, is out this month. The book launches the Disgraced Lords series and tells the exploits of the Libertine Scholars, a group of loveable rakes who have been chums since school. They band together against a common enemy who is determined to destroy each of them. A Kiss of Lies deals with spousal abuse, a topic that sadly still makes headlines today. Bronwen is here to talk about the vulnerability of women in the Regency Era. Thanks, Bronwen!

We hear a lot about slavery in the past and the hideous wrongs committed against people purely for the color of their skin, and we hear about the huge gap between rich and poor and the fact that the poorhouses had appalling living conditions, basically a place the poor went to die, but we hear far less about the plight of women, rich as well as poor, in relation to spousal abuse.

I know it’s not a pleasant topic, but it’s one we should all be aware of, and ensure we are continually vocal about. We cannot let ourselves become complacent. Any abuse, physical or emotional, shouldn’t be tolerated. Domestic abuse is well and truly alive today—unfortunately.

Here are the scary statistics in New Zealand, where I live (population of only 4.4 million).

  • One in three women experience psychological or physical abuse from their partners in their lifetime. 
  • On average 14 women, 6 men and 10 children are killed by a member of their family every year. 
  • Police are called to around 200 domestic violence situations a day – that’s one every seven minutes on average. 
  • Police estimate only 18% of domestic violence incidents are reported.
  • At least 74,785 children and young people aged under 17 were present at domestic violence situations attended by police. 
  • 84% of those arrested for domestic violence are men; 16% are women. 
  • The economic cost of domestic violence was estimated at $1.2 to $5.8 billion per year by economist Suzanne Snively in 19962. In today’s figures, that would be over $8 billion.
  • 20,000 women and children needed the help of NZ Women’s Refuge in 2013.

In NZ we have TV adverts educating men that physical abuse is unacceptable, we have a special police hotline where any member of the public can report what they suspect is any form of abuse, and we have the independent, charitable, Women’s Refuge organization, who do a great job protecting abused women. However, real change needs a societal position: we all need to care. We’ve come a long way since the early 1800s, but we’ve still got a long row to hoe…

During the 16th to 18th centuries, in England there was the so calledGolden Age of the Rod,” where women and children were taught that it was their sacred duty to obey the man of the house. Violence against wives was encouraged throughout this time and spousal rape was not considered a crime. In fact, rape within marriage was not considered a criminal act in most Western countries until the late 1970s and later.

Some say there used to be an unwritten law called “The Rule of Thumb.” A man could not hit his wife with a stick wider than a thumb. An 1824 court case even cited this rule, and the judge said it was unacceptable for a man to use more than moderate force. Moderate! However, it wasn’t until 1829 that a husband’s absolute power of chastisement was abolished.

Common advice to women in an abusive situation is to walk away. Even today it’s easier said than done, when children and money come into the equation, but in the Regency era you could rarely walk away from any marriage due to:-

  • Virtual ownership by your husband. He could commit you to an insane asylum, rape you and beat you, all without being seen as having committed a crime
  • Lack of female education meant limited employment opportunities, making it difficult to earn money to support yourself or your children
  • Ownership of a woman’s property (houses, money, jewelry etc.) went to her husband upon marriage
  • Divorce on the grounds of cruelty was extremely hard to prove and meant applying to the courts for An Act of Parliament where your private life would go under public scrutiny.
  • Divorce, or leaving one’s husband, was stigmatized by society (it was always the wife’s fault) and you were not only left friendless, but often penniless and defenseless.
  • A husband held all the rights to his children if a wife sought a divorce or deserted. This changed in 1839: under the Infants and Child Custody Act women were allowed to take custody of their children under the age of seven if divorced or separated. They could not take custody if they had been found to be adulterous. Before this law the father was immediately awarded custody and it did not depend on the reasons for divorce.

All of these issues made a woman’s decision to leave her husband a very stressful, risky, and often life ending, proposition. Even if you were allowed to take your children, how would you care for them with no home and no money? Unless your family supported you, and stood behind you, often you had no recourse but to remain in the abusive situation. Most often, women were too ashamed to tell their families what was going on behind closed doors. Sadly, this is still happening far too often today.

Prior to 1857, England was the only Protestant country in Europe that did not have provisions for civil divorce. Divorce could only be obtained through private “Acts of Parliament” (“Divorce”). Divorces were very hard to attain because there was no civil divorce. Men could divorce on the grounds of adultery, woman could not. Woman could usually only had grounds to ask for a divorce where they could prove cruelty. However, it was a time where men saw nothing wrong with physically disciplining women, so the cruelty had to be severe. What’s the definition of severe?

Private Acts were inconvenient and extremely costly. The poor therefore had no way of even attempting divorce. When the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act was finally passed, only 322 divorces had been approved, and all but four were obtained by men anxious to re-marry to beget heirs.

In A Kiss of Lies the heroine, Sarah Cooper, is a victim of spousal abuse. Her husband takes her from England to Virginia, a decision she has no say in, where he is a plantation owner. He treats her little better than his slaves. She befriends one such slave who shows her how to ensure she bears him no children, and Sarah is intelligent enough to know she has to run or she’ll end up dead. Finally, she is resourceful enough to take her jewelry (which is deemed theft as it is her husband’s property) to finance her escape. Luckily for Sarah, she has help. Two slaves run with her, using the Underground Railway slave route to help her reach Canada.

And once she reaches Canada, she meets one of the Libertine Scholars.

What “torn from the headlines” books have you enjoyed?

Learn more or order a copy of A Kiss of Lies by Bronwen Evans, out now:

Buy at AmazonBuy at Barnes & Noble



Bronwen Evans grew up loving books. She has always indulged her love of storytelling and is constantly gobbling up movies, books, and theater. Is it any wonder she’s a proud romance writer? Evans is a two-time winner of the RomCon Readers’ Crown and has been nominated for an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Connect with Bronwen Evans: FacebookTwitter  | Website

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Kareni
Thank you for your post on this sobering subject, Ms. Evans. I look forward to reading your book.
Jennifer Proffitt
2. JenniferProffitt
Wow, those are some startling facts--from both the past and the present. I recently read another book (and I'll be adding yours to the list!), where the wife had an affair in order to force her husband into granting her a divorce after he beat her within an inch of her life. It was amazing to see the lengths she was willing--and, sadly, had to go--in order to get away from her husband.
Alexisa N
3. Alexisa N
We all are aware of how hatd ot can be to get out of an abusive situation today. In the Regency era it was practically impossible. Its good that you included this subject in tour book, iy will help keep it in people's minds that this is an issues that has been and must constantly for fought.
Alexisa N
4. Adrienne deWolfe
A well-researched, hard-hitting article, Bronwen. Thank you for having the courage to air this "dirty laundry" as a worldwide problem, and to offer hope to the women who mistakenly believe they're alone.
Alexisa N
5. Torifl
Wonderful article. To often woman and men find themselves thinking they can't leave an abusive situation for various reasons. They need to be continuously reminded that there is help available.

I can't remember the name but there is one historical romance that has always stuck with me. Heroine is clairvoyant and her husband beats her and uses their blind child to keep her in line. She discovers he is bedding his sister and uses that knowledge to escape marriage with hero. If this sounds familiar to anyone, I would love the title.
Alexandra W
6. parasolprotectorate
Thanks for this article!

Marital rape became criminal in England & Wales from 1991, applying retrospectively in the case of R v. R
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