Aug 29 2017 12:00pm

Historical Romance Fact Check: How Hard Was It to Get Divorced?

When the Scoundrel Sins by Anna Harrington

Today we're thrilled to invite Anna Harrington (When the Scoundrel Sins) to Heroes and Heartbreakers! Divorce is a topic we see handled in many contemporary romances, however, it's not one that's typically tackled in historicals. Divorce is far easier to undertake now, and Anna is here today to outline just how hard it was to get divorced before the 20th century. Thanks, Anna. 

In my most recent Regency romance, When the Scoundrel Sins, Annabelle Greene most definitely does NOT want a marriage of convenience. Quite the opposite, in fact. She wants a divorce of convenience. But as our hero explains (once his heart has started beating again after her shocking proposition), divorce is impossible. Im-possible.

But was it, really? Divorce, and it’s first cousin Annulment, often appears in historical romances as a plot device. But how realistic would it have truly been?

We all remember that Tammy Wynette song from the 1970s…“Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today…” 

Sorry, Tammy. Not if you were in Georgian England. No D-I-V-O-R-C-E for you, and trust me, even if you somehow got one, little J-O-E was going nowhere.

In our current 21st century society, we take getting a divorce for granted. Some estimates place divorce rates as high as 50%, and “no-fault” divorces are relatively quick, easy, and cheap to secure. While researching this, I came across a website that promised me that I could get a no fault divorce in Just 3 Easy Steps! And FOR ONLY $299!! (If I had a husband, I would suspect that author research like this might make him a bit nervous.)

SEE ALSO: Dating Is Hard... Even in Romance Novels!

Because of this, we often forget exactly how extremely difficult it once was to end a marriage. Even a tragically bad and cruel one. And so, divorce (and annulment, especially for failure to consummate the marriage) finds its way into many historical romances as a convenient plot device.

In the real Georgian period, however, divorce was almost never granted, always scandalous, and usually a brutal and humiliating experience for both parties, who had to publicly disclose their evidence, no matter how salacious or degrading. Divorcing was such an ordeal, in fact, that only about 300 divorces were granted between 1765 and the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which transferred divorce from the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts and made it less expensive. The odds of obtaining one in Georgian England were next to impossible, even for the aristocracy. For most people...zilch. Even in the most dire circumstances. Including instances of such physical violence and emotional abuse that wives feared for their lives.

So why was it so difficult to D-I-V-O-R-C-E? Well, first, because it took an act of Parliament. Yep. An Act of Parliament. Can you imagine, in today’s world, if getting divorced took an act of Congress? And second, grounds for divorce were extremely limited and greatly weighted in the husband’s favor (as were most things related to women’s domestic lives before the end of the 20th century). And in general, getting an annulment was even more difficult, more damning in its aftermath, and allowable only in cases of fraud, madness, or impotence. BTW, that whole plot device about getting annulments when the marriage isn’t consummated...um, no. Non-consummation was not grounds for an annulment.

Since an annulment is out for our Georgian Tammy Wynette, on to divorce then. On what grounds could you seek a divorce? Well, it depends…are you the husband or the wife?

For a husband, the only grounds for divorce was adultery. But to do so was admitting that he’d not only been cuckolded but also that he wasn’t man enough to satisfy his wife’s carnal needs in the first place. No wonder, then, that most men only sought divorce after their wives had so publicly fled the marriage that they had no choice but to formally end it. Think: Caroline Lamb’s affair with Lord Byron. After all, would you rather suffer a past disgrace or be an on-going laughingstock?

Things were more complicated for wives. It wasn’t enough for a wife to claim adultery in order to petition for divorce; she also had to prove extreme cruelty at the hands of her husband. Not an easy task considering that husbands were legally entitled to beat their wives so long as it was done with the intent to correct her wrong behavior and as long it was done in moderation. Seriously. It was the Georgian “the bitch had it coming” defense. (We’ll take a short pause now while everyone cringes in horror and then appreciates how far women have come since 1700…and how far we still have to go.) In one infamous decision, Judge Francis Buller ruled that a husband could beat his wife as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb. Further, most women had to be willing to surrender all their property in the divorce, all their social standing, and all their rights to their children.

Divorce was always extremely expensive, took years to obtain, and ended in horrible scandal for both parties.

Of course, all of this applied only to those with money and political connections. For the poor and common laborers, divorce was unattainable. What then was a miserable, poor spouse to do?

That’s right—wife selling.

After parading his wife through the streets or square with a rope around her neck, arm, or waist to indicate that she was for sale, the husband would lead a public auction to sell the wife to the highest bidder, who was usually her lover. The husband benefited by being mutually released from all marital duties toward his wife, and he wasn’t above using blackmail to secure his freedom. If her lover refused to purchase her, often at a pre-agreed upon price, the husband could pursue the legal threat of criminal conversation. That is, seeking restitution against the lover for damage to his property—i.e., his wife.

Only a handful of wives are on record as objecting. Some wives even insisted upon being sold. (Husband-selling did not exist...although certainly many wives wished it would have.)

And there you have it. Divorce, Georgian Style. Tammy Wynette and I thank you for your time.


Learn more about or order a copy of When the Scoundrel Sins by Anna Harrington, available now:

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Anna Harrington fell in love with historical romances—and all those dashing Regency heroes—while living in London, where she studied literature and theatre. She loves to travel, fly airplanes, and hike, and when she isn't busy writing her next novel, she loves fussing over her roses in her garden. Visit her website at www.AnnaHarringtonBooks.com or follow her at @aharrington2875.

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Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Kareni
Thank you, Anna, for a fascinating article; I've learned quite a bit today!

My mother's parents divorced in post-WWII the Netherlands. I think divorce was not so common then, but certainly not nearly as rare as in Georgian England!
Anna H.
2. Anna H.
Thanks for the comment, Kareni! My grandmother divorced from her alcoholic husband in the late 1940's as well, in small-town Indiana. It was difficult fo r her to get (7 small children, too), and there was lots of gossip surrounding it.
3. lauralee1912
This is the first time I heard of wife selling! Seems to be a version of today's no fault divorces.

The parents of one of my friends divorced back in the mid-1960s and there was a bit of scandal around it and our mothers gossiped. The neighbor girls thought it was quite glamorous to visit our friend and her mother in their apartment with a pool.
Anna H.
4. EC Spurlock
Wow, there is a TON of potential plot material here... Thanks Anna!
Anna H.
5. LauraLJ
There's the famous divorce in the early 1900's between Cissy Patterson and Count Gizycki which took 13 years. So much for marrying poor royalty.

Anna H.
6. Morgan Grantwood
If you want to read an already-written novel that includes wife-selling, you have only to look so far as Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge". It's a major plot point.

And here's a cool article on the practice.

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