Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore Paperback – Feb 9 2010
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“To call the truth stranger than fiction is, in the case of Mary, Countess of Strathmore, an outrageous understatement. Wedlock is the incredible story of her transformation from one of eighteenth-century England's richest, most free-wheeling heiresses into a piteous victim of a cruel, manipulative abuser into an improbable poster-child for modern women's rights. This book is what all history should be: exciting, inspiring, impossible to forget. ”
—Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
“What a story! A beautiful, wealthy countess, accustomed to a life of cosseted privilege, is deceived by an almost impossibly dastardly scoundrel. In Wendy Moore's skillful hands, the decadent and complex world of eighteenth century England, from the broad lawns and exquisite gardens of vast country estates to the Dickensian murk of the London courts, springs to life in all of its gorgeous detail. A darkly fascinating tale of seduction and domestic abuse.”
—Nancy Goldstone, author of Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe
“Drawing on her extensive research and sure grasp of the period, Wendy Moore has produced a gem. Her compelling account of the feisty Countess of Strathmore is a beautifully written page-turner of a book.”
—Julia Fox, author of Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford
“A gripping story, brilliantly told. The tragic history of Mary, Countess of Strathmore, is more than a cautionary tale. Mary is a true heroine: a survivor and a fighter against a brutish husband and an uncaring society. Wendy Moore succeeds admirably in describing a marriage that was forged in hell but lived on earth.”
—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
WENDY MOORE is the author of The Knife Man. A journalist and writer specializing in health and medicine, she lives in London with her husband and two children.
From the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Mary Eleanor Bowes was one of the richest women in Britain, well educated and vivacious, with inheritances from her father and her deceased first husband.She was just the target for Andrew Robinson Stoney, the eldest son of a rich Irish family, who had been a soldier, but had sought his fortune not martially but maritally. It was only by the most dramatic means that he was able to change Mary's mind to have him rather than the lover she had already selected. He defended her name in a duel, and was promptly run through by a sword. On his deathbed, he swore he could only die happy if he were married to the one for whom he had sacrificed his life. She consented, but without giving a surprising secret of the book away, it is fair to say that he arranged a dramatic recovery. He soon claimed all his marital rights, including those to all of Mary's wealth (wives could not own their own property or have a private income). If there is any weakness in Moore's book it is that she has to report assaults, pinchings, starvings, burns, attempted rapes, and imprisonments all through the eight years they lived together. Mary could not communicate with her family or visit her own gardens unless he gave assent. He arranged for hares to be set into her botanical garden. He threw food at her and then demanded she eat it. He held a knife to her throat, and he made her drink laudanum. If he were ever displeased about anything outside the home, she was liable for a beating, and the staff learned to ignore her screams. He took care to make sure that those outside the home got the impression that he was trying to calm the whims of an eccentric wife, and the law was on his side. Wives were little more legally than chattel to their husbands, and physical discipline was as necessary to train a wife as it was to, say, train a bad dog. A friend of Stoney, and an apologist while Stoney lived, waited two years after Stoney's death to proclaim the man "a villain to the backbone," concluding: "To sum up his character in a few words, he was cowardly, insidious, hypocritical, tyrannic, mean, violent, selfish, jealous, revengeful, inhuman, and savage, without a countervailing quality."
It was her servants who eventually rescued Mary from her torturous captivity. Stoney made a grave mistake in hiring Mary Morgan, who was instead of the typical concubine he hired to spy on his wife, a smart and independent woman to whom Mary eventually and with trepidation revealed the degree of bad treatment she had endured. Morgan got legal advice, and she recruited three other servants to help plan an escape. The most inspiring parts of the book are the stories of the retainers, gardeners, and tenants who supported Mary during the escape and afterwards; many of them were risking their livelihoods as they remained in Stoney's employ. Even after her escape, she was not safe, and was abducted by her husband and brutally mistreated until the authorities finally rescued her. The law eventually came around, along with the understanding of the public about just how badly Mary had been treated. She eventually won the battle in the press and in the courts, and her legal victory was a start to sensible divorce laws, although it would be many more years before wives were treated equally to husbands when seeking divorces, or before simple incompatibility was justification for ending a marriage. Stoney was imprisoned (for debt) for 22 years until he died. He took with him in prison yet another woman he had successfully seduced, and who bore his mistreatment as well as five children. _Wedlock_ is sensational. For all the extensive research that seems to have gone into it (it covers such topics as dueling etiquette and abortifacients, for instance), it is as thrilling and scary as the gothic novels of the period.
The story of Mary Eleanor, Countess of Strathmore -- of whom the late Queen Mother was a direct descendant -- is shocking and heartbreaking. Mary Eleanor, The Countess of Strathmore, had no legal or perhaps more importantly, social standing when it came to enduring and ultimately ending her abusive second marriage.
A woman who married lost her own identity in 18th Century England. Her husband became her owner, literally, as her money, her property, her children, her very life became his to dispose of. The Countess's second husband was an Irish bounder, a good-looking rake, and a psychopath. He tricked her into marriage because he had no fortune of his own, and she was enormously wealthy. He invented every possible excuse to beat her, burn her, and deprive her of any semblance of a normal life. He was inventive in his cruelty and flagrant in his own sexual depravity, raping servants, fathering countless illegitimate children, and bring prostitutes into his home to look after his children. Why didn't he just kill his wife and get it over with? There were plenty of opportunities, and he lived in a social milieu where a murder was easily covered up if you were rich and well-connected. The only conclusion that makes sense is that he enjoyed the abuse for its own sake. He made sure that her social standing was as a madwoman who had inexplicable "fits" and often fell down. He portrayed himself as the injured, long-suffering husband who was hard put to take care of her and prevent more "accidents." Why anyone who saw the Countess's bruised face, emaciated figure, and ragged clothing as anything but signs of horrible abuse is puzzling, but the entire society was complicit until late in the 19th Century with the abuse and imprisonment of wives.
Mary Eleanor's ultimately escaped and was vindicated in her accusations against her husband. Her reunion with her children, the belated recognition by her own family that she had been a victim of abuse and the peaceful last years of her life are the happy ending that I hoped this unfortunate woman would have. The scenes of her post-divorce kidnapping by her husband, and a harrowing chase across the north of England, read like a novel. Even for readers who typically do not read non-fiction, this book is about as engrossing as they come.
Wendy Moore's entertaining Wedlock tells the story of Mary Eleanor fight to divorce her rogue of second husband and fans of Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats and Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire will find themselves at home. This is popular history that is as accessible as it is enjoyable. Prior knowledge of the times is not required but those familiar with the era won't find the background provided tedious. Moore sets out to inform and entertain and she accomplishes both. The story does bog down a tad in the middle - given that the topic at hand the abuse Mary Eleanor suffers at the hands of husband #2 Andrew Stoney that's not too surprising. Moore so effectively paints a picture of the villainous Stoney that readers may find themselves, like me, sorely disappointed that hanging wasn't an option for this cretin.
This is a story of female empowerment Georgian-style and sisterhood; it's also the story of conning someone into marriage that is so complex and so amazing it's no wonder Thackeray made a novel of it. Along the way we have bad behavior among the rich and famous (including a year of girl-gone-wild antics from Mary Eleanor that would leave Britney Spears saying, "Wow, that's trashy.") and Georgian phrasing that never fails to entertain. I, for one, plan on using the phrase "my deranged finances" at tax time next year. When the Court responds to one of Stoney's lunatic lawsuits with the words "If it be possible to conceive the Husband, of all others, who ought the least to be permitted to question any such Dispositions made by a Wife, the Appellant is that Husband" you know that this is the 18th Century legal equivalent of "You have got to be kidding."
Highly recommended for fans of history and biographies.
Kindle note: no photographs or linked footnotes.
Mary inherited several estates and mega-millions from her father, who died when she was a child, her mother having died giving birth to her. Mr. Bowes doted on his precocious daughter, nurturing her high intelligence with an excellent education and sparing no expense on clothing, gifts and other indulgences for her. Always susceptible to male attention, as a teen she enjoyed quite a number of admirers and indeed led quite a few on. As a young woman she took full advantage of her fortune, spending recklessly on shopping and outings to the opera. After the death of her first husband, Mary was wooed by several suitors, among them one Andrew Robinson Stoney. Betrothed to another, Mary fell for a ruse staged by Stoney, supposedly on his deathbed after being mortally wounded in a duel defending her honor. He asked for her hand in marriage and Mary obliged, for how could she refuse a dying man his heartfelt request? After his death she would be free to marry the one to whom she was already promised. Yet Stoney made a miraculous and rapid recovery, firmly securing the Bowes fortune for himself (at that time a woman had to forfeit all monies and properties to her husband). Having changed his name legally now to Bowes (a stipulation in her father's will so as to keep the estate in the family name), Stoney/Bowes proceeded immediately to terrorize his wife, servants and anyone else who dared cross him.
This is a remarkable story, not only because Mary survived the horrific abuse but because, once having escaped him physically, she embarked on an incredibly courageous quest for a legal divorce, virtually unheard of in 1700's England. Stoney/Bowes tried every lowdown, dirty rotten trick in the book to prevent the divorce, which would mean his coffers would no longer be stocked with sufficient funds to finance his depraved lifestyle. Having been betrayed by many former acquaintances from her freewheeling life before Stoney, (she is denied access to her own children from her first marriage and then to her children with Stoney) Mary was dependent almost solely on the servants, groundskeepers and tenants whose loyalty proved invaluable. Especially touching is the blind devotion of her poor, sickly gardener, Robert Thompson, who stubbornly continued to tend Mary's beloved gardens despite being threatened by Stoney, and arranged to have food and money sent to her when he was barely scraping by himself. When Stoney's dog falls into a mine shaft and dies, Thompson remarks "i wish it had benn him self."
Wendy Moore has done her research. I've never read anything so meticulously detailed, right down to the personal histories of most of the people in Mary's life and the types of plants and flowers in her gardens including how she acquired many exotic species. (Mary had shown early promise as a serious botanist). More impressive still are the details of the myriad legal proceedings. Although it starts off a bit slowly, it begins to pick up speed about 1/4 of the way through and is well worth the effort to read it. An outstanding book.
However, my low rating for an otherwise excellent piece of biographical scholarship comes from the poor Kindle version editing. The kindle edition was clearly an OCR (optical character recognition) scan instead of a direct importation of the digital file, so the copy-editor's work went somewhat to waste. Castle is rendered as casde, _the_ is sometimes rendered as _die_, George III is occasionally rendered as George Ill ( which, given his porphyria and madness, is an apt, if cruel pun). It grows intrusive quite rapidly, having to decipher a nonsensical OCR error. This is the first OCR'ed Kindle edition that wasn't derived from a piece of public domain work that I've bought, but it is not the first time I've seen these type of errors in an ebook. Converting the digital file to Kindle format is much cheaper and less time consuming than scanning a finished manuscript, so why this choice was made confounds me. Shame on the publishers for failing to use the digital file, and double shame for failing to hand the OCR output file back to a copy-editor.