Tuesday, 4 May 2010

What I've Been Reading: Wedlock by Wendy Moore

I've very recently finished reading Wendy Moore's Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match. Published in 2009, this is Moore's second historical biography (The Knife Man being her first in 2003), and I felt compelled to write about it. A journalist of some considerable experience, Moore's investigative powers shine through in this book. 

This is the story of Mary Eleanor Bowes; born in 1749 to the wealthy coal magnate and landowner George Bowes and his wife Mary. One of the richest heiresses in Britain, Mary Eleanor was indulged and spoiled, but she was also rigorously educated. Her father held progressive views on the education of girls (and took the startling step of adding a clause in any marriage agreement for his daughter which meant that her husband was law-bound to change his surname to Bowes), and as such, Mary Eleanor was schooled as comprehensively as many aristocratic boys of the time. In time she became an excellent linguist with a vociferous interest in botany.

What Moore makes clear however, is that for all her superior education, Mary Eleanor unfortunately made impulsive and poorly thought out decisions. The first was her marriage (aged eighteen) to John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore. Initially besotted, she was soon bored, unhappy and indulging in flirtations and relationships with other men. 

Although Moore's book charts Mary Eleanor's early life and first marriage, it is her second marriage and subsequent experiences that are the crux of her work (and the reason for the book's title).

In 1777, an Irish soldier by the name of Andrew Robinson Stoney entered her life. He charmed his way into her inner circle and fully aware of Mary Eleanor's huge fortune, set about ensnaring her. It seemed for a while as though matters would not go his way. Mary Eleanor was engaged and pregnant by her lover George Gray, but one morning, she was called to Stoney's bedside. He had fought a duel to defend her honour, and as he lay "mortally" wounded, he asked that the fair Countess grant his dying wish; that they be married. Mary Eleanor could simply not refuse.

Within hours, Stoney's (now Bowes) injuries had inexplicably healed. What follows is a story of unmitigated brutality and humiliation, as Bowes sought to break his new wife by all and any means. This is not a light read, and Moore does not shy away from revealing and catologuing every facet of Mary Eleanor's miserable existence. Within a few short years, the formerly ebullient Lady Strathmore had become a shaking, quivering shadow; desperately underweight, scarred, bruised, terrified, and dressed in ragged clothes (disallowed by Bowes from buying new clothes, shoes or underwear). And yet this is not the most extraordinary part of the story. As the title suggests, Mary Eleanor escaped and set in motion a course of events that would see her kidnapped, dragged about the country and dragged through the courts.

But did the Countess escape Bowes' clutches completely? I don't want to spoil the end of the story, so I'll leave it for you to read the book. Despite the descriptions of horrific violence, this is a fascinating book. Moore weaves the complexities of the English legal system and eighteenth century etiquette into her writing with ease. As a well researched social history, it's brilliant, but moreover as a moving and uplifting story of one woman's remarkable journey, Wedlock is a triumph.

Image courtesy of The Daily Mail. 

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