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Divorce in Fact and Fiction During the Victorian Era

Updated on July 24, 2012

Wedding Dress, E. Gill, Circa 1870

Just like today, many Victorian brides emulated wedding dresses worn by members of the royal family. In 1840 Queen Victoria had chosen cream satin and Honiton Lace for her wedding dress, providing an important boost to the Devon lacemaking industry.
Just like today, many Victorian brides emulated wedding dresses worn by members of the royal family. In 1840 Queen Victoria had chosen cream satin and Honiton Lace for her wedding dress, providing an important boost to the Devon lacemaking industry. | Source


"However, there was only one thing now to be done, and that was to play a straightforward part, the law being the law, and the woman between whom and himself there was no more unity between east and west being in the eye of the Church one person with him" (Hardy 192).

"He thought of the best part of his life, of the change it made in his character for the worse every day, of the dreadful nature of his existence, bound hand and foot, to a dead woman, and tormented by a demon in her shape" (Dickens 108).

"The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement" (Mill 93).

"The most important contribution of the Matrimonial Causes Act passed in 1857 was that it secularized and regularized legal procedures for obtaining a separation or a divorce" (Poovey 467).

Matrimonial Causes Act


The prevailing attitude of change in the hearts of most Victorians affected many aspects of their daily life. Divorce was one of those changes. Because of issues involved in the evolution of the roles of men and women and the questioning of religious values and morals, Victorians were able to believe the new idea that divorce could both be justified and allowable for members of every social strata.

Before the Matrimonial Causes Act passed in 1857, divorce (absolute divorce) was almost unheard of, and it was only with extreme difficulty that any sort of separation at all could be affected (Poovey 467). The passage of the Act, however, allowed women to petition for divorce. There were still many problems - women still could not control their property while they were married, women could not divorce merely because a man had an affair (while men could divorce women for that reason), and the actual definition of cruelty had such a high bar that in cases which today would be considered extreme abuse, divorce was not granted. Robert Griswold chronicled one case that took place in 1876 in which Abigail English attempted to secure a divorce from her husband for cruelty due to marital rape occurring while she was still injured from a difficult delivery involving forceps and a subsequent miscarriage (529). The courts at first granted it, but then revoked their divorce, as "most women experienced pain during intercourse" (530) and "it is..contrary to the policy of the law, which rather seeks to…keep [families] thus united for their own good and for the welfare of society" (538).

The public tide, however, was turning against such harsh requirements to obtain a divorce. While the Matrimonial Causes Act was a step forward, it was not enough, and Victorians seemed able to move further away from the idea of a man and woman joined together forever.

Divorce in Charles Dickens' Hard Times


In Charles Dickens' Hard Times, the reader is brought into two separate marriages - one in the lower class, and one in the newly emerged middle class - and view how both marriages were in need of dissolution.

Louisa Gradgrind and Bounderby were joined together in marriage in a very factual, straightforward manner. There was no question of love existing in the marriage - it was a business deal.

'Father,' said Louisa, 'do you think I love Mr. Bounderby?' Mr. Gradbrind was extremely discomfited by this unexpected question…'Why, my dear Louisa,' said Mr. Gradgrind, completely recovered by this time, 'I would advise you (since you ask me) to consider this question, as you have been accustomed to consider every other question, simply as one of tangible Fact' (Dickens 129-130).

The lack of love (or even a willingness of Bounderby to accept Louisa as an equal), led to Louisa running from the marriage. Upon her arrival at home, she again speaks with her father.

'When I was irrevocably married, there rose up into rebellion against the tie, the old strife, made fiercer by all those causes of disparity which arise out of our two individual natures, and which no general laws shall ever rule or state for me…' (Dickens 290)

Louisa wishes to be removed from her marriage - "Now, father, you have brought me to this. Save me by some other means!"

The marriage has obviously failed. There can be no going back, at least in Louisa's mind. She has no interest in remaining married to Bounderby. The question in the mind of the Victorian reader at this moment should be whether or not this is an acceptable viewpoint being held by Louisa. Is she entitled to a divorce in a case in which there is no cruelty, adultery, or abandonment?

As a counter-point to the more civil divorce, Dickens presents the case of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Blackpool. Unlike Louisa and Bounderby - both well-bred and financially solvent - the Blackpools belong to the "Hands," the working class. Mrs. Blackpool has abandoned Stephen, like Louisa abandons Bounderby, but Mrs. Blackpool continually returns, and in doing so, presents to the reader the other viewpoint of a marriage - one in which the husband is suffering from a wife who has abandoned her morals. The first view of Mrs. Blackpool is of "A creature so foul to look at, in her tatters, stains and splashes, but so much fouler than that in her moral infamy, that is was a shameful thing even to see her" (Dickens 89). There can be no question in the reader's mind that Stephen does not deserve to be left with such a wife. Stephen attempts to gain help with removing himself from his marriage, going to Bounderby and telling him, "I ha' read i' th' papers that great folk…are not bonded together for better for worst so fast, but that they can be set free fro' their misfortent marriages, an' marry ower agen" (Dickens 97). In this case, the question becomes more about the inequality of legal resources (Cooperman 160).

Regardless of the reasons, however, both cases presented within Hard Times are meant to make the reader side with divorce, not against it. Both cases show those trapped within marriages, with divorce being a viable option to rescue man or woman who is unhappy within the confines of a marriage.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy | Source

Divorce in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure


Thomas Hardy presents a more complex view of marriage and divorce, one in which marriage and divorce are both easily obtainable. In a postscript to the Jude the Obscure, Hardy says that "a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties - being then essentially and morally no marriage" (Goetz 190). That was the basis of the novel Jude the Obscure, yet being able to both marry and divorce fails to do the characters any good.

There are four marriages within Jude. The first and last are between Jude Fawley and Arabella, the second and third are between Sue Bridehead and Richard Phillotson. There is one common law marriage, between Sue and Jude, but this marriage, while consummated, is never formalized in either the law or the Church.

The first marriage between Jude and Arabella is one that puts the reader firmly in the opinion that divorce should be allowed. From the beginning, Jude is lied to and manipulated. He is led to believe that Arabella is pregnant when she is not. Arabella, though, not Jude, is the one to leave as the marriage further disintegrates. When she re-appears, she has already remarried, claiming to believe that Jude had died. Arabella's adultery allows for their divorce, a divorce she requests so that she can re-marry her Australian husband. The second marriage between Jude and Arabella (the fourth within the book) is one of antagonism and pain. Arabella is miserable with Jude, feeling that he had lied to her by being healthy when they married, but then falling ill. Instead of him caring for her, the situation is reversed, and she greatly resents him. While most readers would again feel that divorce is an option, by this time Jude is not interested in a divorce as he will be miserable married or not.

The second marriage in the book is between Sue and Richard. This marriage is again an unhappy one.

I am called Mrs. Richard Phillotson, living a calm wedded life with my counterpart of that name. But I am not really Mrs. Richard Phillotson, but a woman tossed about, all alone, with aberrant passions, and unaccountable apathies (Hardy 216).

Sue suggests that they separate, telling Richard that "domestic laws should be made according to temperaments, which should be classified. If people are at all peculiar in character, they have to suffer from the very rules that produce comfort in others!" (Hardy 236). Richard agrees, finally, stating that he doesn't see "why the woman and the children should not be the unit without the man" (Hardy 244).

The third marriage within the book is between Richard and Sue. After the Sue's and Jude's illegitimate children, Sue is inconsolable and has decided to take all blame from the situation. She decides that it is because of her and Jude flaunting their lack of marriage, and that in God's eyes, she is truly married to Richard still. Because of this, she leaves Jude and re-marries Richard.

The lack of marriage between Jude and Sue has an interesting place in a book that deals so heavily with marriage and divorce. Sue does not wish to marry again, stating that "fewer women like marriage than you suppose, only they enter into it for the dignity it is assumed to confer, and the social advantages it gains them sometimes" (Hardy 273). This lack of marriage, however, does not do any better for either Sue or Jude. By the simple act of pretending they are married, they isolate themselves doubly - once because they are unable to tell others the truth for fear of retribution, and further because it keeps them from staying together as there is no divorce needed for a quick separation.

Hardy shows that the divorces granted between Jude and Arabella and Sue and Richard offer "no lasting solution" and, in fact, "the novel can conclude only after both protagonists have reentered marriages with their original partners in a sort of grotesque parody of the conventionally happy ending" (Goetz 191). Unlike Hard Times, the main question about marriage and divorce, as seen in Jude, deals with the matters of laws of nature and civil laws. The civil laws "make contractual a feeling that should be voluntary" (Goetz 196), causing unhappiness for both Jude and Sue. But the laws of nature are no better, allowing Sue and Jude to live together without marriage, but apparently also being the cause of Jude and Arabella's son to murder Jude and Sue's children and commit suicide. While one of Richard's friends claims that divorce will cause "general domestic disintegration" (Hardy 244), the real problem appears to be within the natural laws themselves as much as in the civil ones.

John Stuart Mill

Copy of the image in use for many PD old works, including John Stuart Mill: Sein Leben und Lebenswerk by Samuel Saenger. Stuttgart: Fromman's Verlag, 1901. Found on Google Books
Copy of the image in use for many PD old works, including John Stuart Mill: Sein Leben und Lebenswerk by Samuel Saenger. Stuttgart: Fromman's Verlag, 1901. Found on Google Books | Source

Divorce in the Real World: John Stuart Mill


While this may show that the fictional world was rife with marriage and divorce, the world at large at the time was in a similar state. John Stuart Mill wrote on both the subjection of women and liberty. His views, however, were no doubt influenced by his personal life. In 1830, Mill met Harriet Taylor, a married woman with three children. The two fell in love, but due to Harriet's position, divorce was not an option, and the "couple" were forced to live apart.

There are parallels between Hardy's Sue and Richard and Harriet Taylor and her husband. Taylor's husband allowed Mill and Harriet to spend time together, as Richard was willing to release Sue to Jude. Similarly, Harriet had "extravagant" intellectual powers (Trilling and Bloom 74). In addition, Sue even quotes Mill, "She, or he, who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation" (Hardy 235).

Mill believed that "human beings should be free to form opinions and to express their opinions without reserve" (Mill 83). He further believed that "the liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to others" (Mill 84). Finally, Mill quotes Humbert, pointing out that the two things necessary for human development are "freedom and variety of situations" (Mill 95). Taking these statements into account, Mill can easily be seen as a proponent for divorce. Marriage was binding and constricting - as Mill knew from his relationship with Harriet Taylor. Divorce fits within each of Mills statements - marriage could keep human beings from forming and expressing opinions, divorce did not make anyone a nuisance to others (therefore it was not something that should be limited), and freedom and variety of situations was much easier for both the man and woman to encounter if neither was forced into a marriage that was not wanted.

Mill believed that the state of affairs between men and women was based upon false assumptions - "the result of false repression in some direction, unnatural stimulation in others" (Mill 97). He called for social institutions to "admit the same free development of originality in women which is possible to men" (Mill 99). Applied to the Matrimonial Causes Act, this would allow freedom for women to divorce as easily as men could divorce, something that seems to be gaining possibility within the realm of thought at the time.

Conclusion


Divorce was in the hearts and minds of Victorians. Whether shown in fiction or non-fiction, it is clear that divorce was rapidly becoming a part of society.

Works Cited


Cooperman, Stanley. "Dickens and the Secular Blasphemy: Social Criticism in Hard Times, Little Dorrit and Bleak House." College English. 22. 3. December 1960. pp. 156-160. 5 May 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0010-0994%28196012%2922%3A3%3C156%3ADATSBS%3E2.0.CO%3B2-X>

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Goetz, William R. "The Felicity and Infelicity of Marriage in Jude the Obscure." Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 38.2. September 1983. pp. 189-213. 5 May 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0029-0564%28198309%2938%3A2%3C189%3ATFAIOM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-R>

Griswold, Robert L. "Sexual Cruelty and the Case for Divorce in Victorian America." Signs. 11.3. Spring 1986. pp. 529-541. 5 May 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0097-9740%28198621%2911%3A3%3C529%3ASCATCF%3E2.0.CO%3B2-J>

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.

Hyde, William J. "Theoretic and Practical Unconventionality in Jude the Obscure." Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 20.2 September 1965. pp. 155-164. 5 May 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0029-0564%28196509%2920%3A2%3C155%3ATAPUIJ%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Q>

Mill, John Stuart. "From On Liberty" Trilling, Lionel and Bloom, Harold, comp and ed. Victorian Prose and Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. 83-96.

Mill, John Stuart. "From On the Subjection of Women" Trilling, Lionel and Bloom, Harold, comp and ed. Victorian Prose and Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. 96-99.

Poovey, Mary. "Covered but Not Bound: Caroline Norton and the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act." Feminist Studies. 14. 3. Autumn 1988. pp. 467-485. 5 May 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0046-3663%28198823%2914%3A3%3C467%3ACBNBCN%3E2.0.CO%3B2-C>

Trilling, Lionel and Bloom, Harold, comp and ed. Victorian Prose and Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

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