By: Claire Feist
Divorce Laws in The Time of Austen
Marriage, in the time of Jane Austen, was much different then marriage is today. Today marriage is done and recognized through the state, however; marriage was not done like this in Europe during the Regency Era. When a couple was wed, they were most likely wed through the Church of England. Marriage back then was considered to be an eternal bond not to be broken at any cost. Though it was often frowned upon, couples would get married even if they didn’t love each other. This was most common in the higher class society in order to bring families together for the purpose of money. In the past, the common stereotype of a women was that she would wed in order to be supported by her husband. “Marriage, for some, is a solution to their financial difficulties.” In the time of Jane Austen, there were many laws that favored men. If a family were to have multiple kids, the oldest son was designated to inherit the family fortune. This caused not only women, but also the younger males of the family, to get the short end of the stick. Because of this, women would have to marry if they did not want their futures dampened with the uncertainty of being looked out for and supported financially. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram, like many young women, aspired to marriage. “Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could” (4.10) If a woman was not to marry, once her father would pass away, she would have to hope that whomever inherited her father’s wealth would support her financially, would would most likely be the eldest male relative. Most women would choose to marry because it was uncommon for the oldest male of the family to financially support them after the death of their father, Even though through the Marriage Act of 1540 siblings were banned from getting married, under the rule of King Henry VIII, which was still in play during Jane Austen’s life, first cousins were in far enough relation to one another to get married. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine De Bourge, Mr. Darcy’s aunt, wishes for her daughter and nephew to wed. Inter family marriages through cousins was not very common, it was often seen more in the higher wealth families, to keep the fortune in the family.
When a couples get divorced today, it is common for the two to separate and continue living their lives apart from each other. In the time of Jane Austen, or the Regency era, this was not the case. When Jane Austen was alive, divorce was a “politically charged national debate.” Women’s rights played a large roll in divorce laws. During the time of Austen, a woman was not educated to the same level as a man, and therefore would not be ready and able to live on her own and support herself even if she could. For a woman, the main end goal was marriage. The only expectation of a women was to be married with children.
If a man were to cheat on his wife, the women would not be allowed to file for divorce, or separation, and therefore would have to stay in that relationship. A man, on the other hand, could divorce his wife if she was caught cheating. Not only could they separate from their wife, but if she was caught cheating, the reason for their separation would be publicized and the woman’s life would be ruined. Only if “a woman was subjected to seven years of harsh treatment”, and was able to prove it, would she be allowed to file for any sort of separation. This treatment would have to be so bad, that in the twenty-first century it would be considered attempt of murder. In Regency England, there was something called the “Divorce Bill” which declared that, “women would be legally the perpetual property of their husbands, which meant that ex-wives would not be able to
remarry and that any money they earned or inherited-for the rest of their lives-would belong to their ex-husbands.” Though women had next to no rights as people at that time, when a women was wed, she lost all of the rights she did have as a human being. Like stated before, a woman would become the property, and responsibility, of the man she married. It was not until 1857, “when the first Matrimonial Causes Act was passed.” This meant that before the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed, it took a lot of time, effort, and money to get a divorce from your spouse. Not only would the couple have to be able to afford the separation, if they would want to have the option to get remarried, they would have to go and have the parliament “pass a special bill providing for the ‘relief’ of the petitioner.” The time and money was not always available to most people, so the common option was to, instead of perusing a separation legally, a couple would just part ways. This would create a way for a couple to leave each other’s company, but for the woman to still be supported.
Divorce in Jane Austen
Mansfield Park was the third of Jane Austen’s novels to ever be published and in the end, readers receive a shocking blow when Maria Rushworth(Bertram) leaves her husband, Mr. Rushworth, to run away with Henry Crawford. This scandal leaves the family, and even city, in utter astonishment and disgust. “He saw Mrs. Rushworth, and was received by her with a coldness which ought to have been repulsive, and have established apparent indifference between them for ever; but he was mortified, he could not bear to be thrown off by the woman whose smiles had been so wholly at his command; he must exert himself to subdue so proud a display of resentment; it was anger on Fanny’s account; he must get the better of it, and make Mrs. Rushworth Maria Bertram again in treatment of himself.” (Vol. III, Ch. XVII, pg. 367) This act, of a woman leaving her comfortable life, and running away with another man, was cause enough for a man to get a divorce from his wife. This act was considered damaging to the most extreme.
Martha Bailey. “The Marriage Law of Jane Austen’s World” Jasna V.36, NO.1 (Winter 2015) http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol36no1/bailey.html
Craig, Sheryl. “So Ended Marriage.” Jasna, n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
HUDSON, CHRISTOPHER. “The Wife Who Changed History – by Asking for the First Divorce.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 17 Jan. 2008. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
UK Parliament. “Obtaining a Divorce” http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/divorce/
Kinsley, James, ed. Mansfield Park. N.p.: Oxford UP, n.d. Print.
Brie, Steve, and William T. Rossiter, eds. Literature and Ethics: From the Green Knight to the Dark Night. N.p.: Cambridge Scholars, n.d. Print.
Court House Photo: https://www.pinterest.com/1viriel/19th-london-police-crime-court-prison/