Dear friends and readers,
I’ve just finished reading Wendy Moore’s Wedlock, a powerful non-fiction narrative account of how Mary Eleanor Bowles (1749-1800) was tricked into marrying, and then came to endure horrific physical abuse and mental torture by Andrew Robinson Stoney (1747-1810); it vies with Retif de la Bretonne’s account of the abuse of his daughter, Agnes suffered, Ingenue Saxancour, for its candor, power, and revelation of the vulnerable condition of women (in law, in custom) in the 18th century. It is another variant example of wife abuse in the 18th century and since as treated by Mary Trouille, and recently exemplified once again by Nadine Trintignant.
The value of Moore’s book goes beyond this: she seems to have happened on a cache of documents which allows her to reach a level of private life of a whole bunch of interlocking people, and I find myself even now astonished how how ruthless and rigorous were the laws excluding women from any power or satisfaction or agency (they had no control over property, their bodies, their children, their space and were subject to beating and just endless pregnancies. She also details the lives of many people who Mary attempted to patronize, help, and who were dependent on her, and how her choice of husband adversely affected so many people because of his ruthless exploitation of their lack of status and therefore entitlement to any good quality of life .
This book makes a good companion volume to Charlotte Smith’s novels. Chapter after chapter in effect amount to an indictment of human nature as it takes its larger and smaller average forms in society. The worst ugliest values are the norms: Stoney is not just a monster, he’s a successful one. What he likes — racing, and ugly fighting of animals — is liked generally. What he wants to do is just fine and makes no enemies except those he unfortunately directly hurts. He flourishes. He wins elections because he intuitively knows how to please people in general. Lying about everything gets him every where (he pretends to be anti-war, radical) and then behaves with utter contempt to everyone once he gains power.
The story of William Paterson is instructive. He was a remarkable botanist and scientist who traveled across South Africa gathering enormous valuable information — originally supported by Mary who had knowledge enough to appreciate him. After 4 years he found himself in debt and with no one to help him or appreciate what he had gathered. He had a couple of decent friends who understood and they hid him. The way he made it was finally to sell his knowledge for the war-mongering of his era and become a member of military expeditions. That was what was admired. It took many years before he wrote up his worthy book. Had he had a family name he might have been paid some attention to before.
And we learn that Mary was one of the most learned female botanists of her age who did intense study, had detailed knowledge and carefully nurtured garden life in her house landscapes. Never acknowledged, under the hammer of that husband all she managed was to protect a few exotics Paterson brought home.
The history of the Mary and Stoney up to the day of their marriage to one another
The book opens with an apparently ferocious duel between Stoney and a newspaper man said to have besmirched Stoney’s reputation, and tells of how Mary married Stoney thinking he was about to die after having fought a duel to protect her honor. Moore moves on to the "flashback" narrative which describes how her father acquired his great wealth — entrepreneurial nervy character, luck, and by marriage got huge properties to mine — and his second equally commercially minded marriage and the birth of this girl. How she was highly educated, how she became an orphan, and then married the Earl of Strathmore who turned out to a domineering narrow-minded man, who (fortunately for her perhaps) died quickly.
In the chapter before we catch up to Mary’s marriage to Stoney and first days with her new husband, we learn of Captain Stoney’s boyhood (from the get go, manipulative, a bully, a liar, ruthless) where he made his father want to keep away from him, but not stop him at all — for Stoney was his heir you see. We then see how Stoney manages to marry (and how he does this is a combination of deceit and use of norms then and now) and basically brutalizes to death the unfortunate gulled heiress Hannah Newton. It’s another example of the violent abuse and emotional torture to which women could be subjected in marriage which Trouille deals with — only in this case we get might what be the more common result: not one person in Hannah Newton’s family does anything to help her, not one person tries to stop Stoney with anything effective and she dies in childbirth and the one baby she produces almost immediately afterward. Only three terrifying incidents to which he subjected this woman are known in detail: in one he put her in a tiny cupboard and would not give her anything to eat but an egg a day or anyway to come out (let’s say to urinate or defecate); it’s clear sex is brutal rape.
We learn that this is the man that Thackeray modeled his Barry Lyndon upon. I can only say that when in his movie Kubrick makes Lyndon into a sympathetic figure through which Kubrick exposes the cruelties, injustice, irrationalities (&c&c) of 18th century groups of people then and (by extension) groups of people now, Kubrick does real history and social justice a severe disservice. He exculpates a central instrument of the horrors. I did get far enough into Thackeray’s book once to know that Thackeray at least makes the hero as unpleasant and morally ugly as Fielding does Jonathan Wilding.
It is only when this opening sequence of chapters and events is concluded, that we learn the duel never took place in the manner pretended; it was hoax which successfully deluded Mary Bowles. We then learn about Mary’s first marriage. we see how she came to marry Strathmore, what unhappy relationship they had and his death and her reactions shortly thereafter.
I can see why she couldn’t avoid having sex with Strathmore and thus many pregnancies and children, but why she should carry on with George Gray after Strathmore’s death is beyond me. Gray was a Scottish ‘nabob’ who had made and squandered a small fortune working for the East India Company. Gray is said to be portrayed in Foote’s The Nabob; Mary had by this time written a tragedy, The Seige of Jerusalem. When she manages to abort a child, she gets pregnant again. Why? I remember reading these diatribes against the unfortunate women then on welfare that they continually get pregnant by their men and wonder if the psychology here for Mary is the same, except she is so fabulously rich.
I am puzzled by her psychology: she is clearly no sensitive retreating type; she builds places for studying botany — against all continual barrages set up by the husband and his awful family. Perhaps she had the temperament to become a chemical engineer or laboratory scientist with a successful train of papers at conferences, but this doesn’t quite cohere with her behavior over the lovers she took (partly in revenge at her husband) nor her abject behavior to them. What perplexes me is why Mary married a second time and then Stoney. I can no more understand why she lets Gray impregnate her continually than why she married this man — having experienced matrimony once before. I can only put it down to her buying into the social ideas of all around her. Here is a woman who would have been much better off — or saved herself much grief and pain too. Perhaps another problem for Moore in wanting to remain strictly within the realms of non-fiction is Mary was not introspective enough and/or didn’t leave enough letters.
Yet Moore is also remarkable when it comes to telling the childhoods of some of these people. From the get-go Stoney was a horror and everyone felt it. I see she is an astute reader of the subtlest hints and extrapolates letters by other people around the central focus of any part of her narrative. She had to have read widely as well as profoundly. It does read like fiction except not quite, for example, she does not make up a personality the way a novelist would. So Mary’s motives are not all within Moore’s purview.
As I read on I did see that Stoney had a certain glamor for Mary, and he seemed on the surface to be all care for her, was handsome, was admired and certainly the socializing type (so perhaps a "fun" partner in social occasions), but we are told that a couple of days before and at moments before that she had glimpses of another self. Some of their features connect Mary’s choice of husband twice: they are handsome, dressed in what was enviable garb, look debonair .She was fooled by conventional admiration. Gray (her long time lover, and father of several pregnancies) was also someone others apparently admired.
It’s really that I can’t see how can glamor can rate at all with anyone who has a lover at the same time who she is pregnant by (Gray) and who has endured what marriage can be with Strathmore. I’m startled she re-marries at all. She need not. It’s not like she needs money or property. I’m reading at the same time (listening to in my car) Daniel Deronda. I don’t know if Caroline (or anyone else on this list) has read Eliot’s masterpiece novel. There is a woman who is abused there (and though it’s not overt it’s hinted it’s sadistic in bed) and the husband drowns. First, she could have tried to save him and didn’t, and then she never remarries. It will be said this is fiction, but it makes sense to me. This heroine ends up with enough estate and property to be comfortable and support her nuclear family.
Retif’s daughter remarried too, but it was years and years later, and only after she lived with the man for over a year first. Even then I admit I am startled at her letting herself become pregnant by this man (before the remarriage) for that creates the tie and it was until the later 19th century that the first laws against wife-beating with changes in what was socially acceptable custom emerged.
Perpetual harsh abuse such that it’s hard to see how she survived
I read past Chapter 7 now and have been horrified by the perpetual harsh physical abuse — it seems the reason Stoney didn’t kill her was he realized once she died, the estate would revert to someone else. He needed some kind of heir and (happily it seems) that is not happening yet, but everything else is. When he manages to wrest his niece into the house and begins to mercilessly beat and terrify her too, I just am appalled. Nothing is done to help these women, no place for them to escape apparently. It is a direct parallel to Retif de Bretonne’s daughter.
It’s so painful to read how he destroyed Mary’s gardens, sold her beautiful houses, inflicted endless pain on her and his sister. He is driven by spite too, perhaps a sociopath?. I peeked ahead for relief: when she finally fled him, she was able to stay hidden (because he has the right to take her back) because at long last some of her servants supported and helped her. All along servants loyal to him hem her in.
Those invisible people in novels count — and I remembered Richardson’s Lord B’s faithful housekeeper imprisoning Pamela. What seems to me so remarkable is how Moore puts together her stories and keeps them at this intimate level of real motive and genuinely important happening (if intangible, kept in private, and seemingly just trivia or diurnal activities). Moore had to have not only read an enormous cache of varied private papers but read with perception, put things together not put together originally and made linked sense of them.
This is the kind of reading some historical novelists ought to do and perhaps some do — those who want to retell a story where all the characters were real and the outward events are historical. You would just go that little bit beyond to reach further.
It does seem so ironic that the novels we read so often omit the visible servants all around the people. Suddenly out of the blue (it seems) a chief character will hand something to a servant who has been standing or sitting there all the time — among many others in and around the rooms. I feel certain they mattered even if in order to exploit and control them the technique was to pretend they didn’t count, were utterly dispensible and were asked to pretend to erase all their own desires and needs except to a tiny amount of marginalized time and space.
She escapes and is recaptured a Pamela and Clarissa story combined
I’m relieved to be able to say I’ve gotten past the worst painful pages of the book. Mary Eleanor Bowles has at least escaped: with the help of four women: Mary Morgan, Ann Dixon, Ann Parkes and Susanna Church. While I agree that the servants came through, we must not forget the majority did not. Most of the servants surrounding Mary for years and years did Stoney’s cruel bidding. They ignored what was in front of them because he paid them. Some were bullied and terrified: Dorothy who was raped. But these did not flee — Dorothy stayed on. There was nothing stopping her from leaving. She was not a chattel slave. I also note all four are women. Again men helped.
If we want to focus on where Mary managed to help herself at long last, she daringly went to the courts immediately. I think she felt she had to or she would be recaptured and then murdered — with impunity. So we have Lord Mansfield to the rescue once again: a court order backed by her hiding.
One could say what was the problem all along was indifference. There’s a saying: "Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced." I don’t know who versions of this are attributed to but Id’ say the same indifference that mostly surrounded Mary (no one lifting one finger to help her anywhere of all the places she was in) helped here. She had no trouble being ignored. What she had to avoid was Stoney’s paid thug accomplices.
I noticed on wikipedia when I went to read about her life something distressing. She is described as "eccentric" and presented as somehow "weird’ — the article does not begin to present her as an abused woman. Later in life I can well believe her behavior publicly and socially remained outside the norms. Whose would not? she had more than seen their perniciousness and limitation, more than seen how little help obeying the norms gets you when these norms decree you without power and give absolute power over you of someone else.
I found myself marveling how she endured it. I had the same response to the many women Mary Trouille described, some of whom were similarly in danger of their lives. I can scarcely credit how Mary had any part of her body left unbruised. The drawing of her as a withdrawn sunken haunted woman is scary and hard to enter into if you’ve never known this.
When I got to the point in the book where Mary’s bodyguard, Lucas, betrays her and Stoney abducts her again, I was shaking as I read it. It does seem that the law which said a husband could force his wife to return to him was not in fact backed by the society consistently. Mary not only found judges who would side with her (court orders against Stoney coming near her, court orders for her being paid part of her income) and friends and employees who stayed by her, sent her food, it seemed to me that a lot of people around her would know she was there, and none of them could be relied on by Stoney to snatch Mary back.
Compare a chattel slave. No problem snatching them back and everyone would agree and many tell. That’s why it was so hard to build "an underground railway" in the US.
In other cases I’ve read once the wife escapes, it’s some magical act because it’s rare that the husband abducts her. She must leave for Europe or go live far away "in the county" to avoid scandal and his threats, but apparently tracking her down was frowned upon. So a game is played here: if she stays with him, can’t escape, no one lifts a finger to help on the (false) supposition she doesn’t mind. This does remind me of how today abused women are blamed who stay with their husbands: they must not mind is the idea; they invite the abuse. It does not help to point out how the woman might lose her children, has no adequate job to support them, has become shattered, abject, terrified and lacks trust in people. The spectre accusation of masochism is used.
Most of the time I suppose the wife doesn’t have the property or money to make the husband defy the reality that she ran and away and the humiliation (or loss of face) of grabbing her back. This was the case wite Agnes de la Bretonne.
Stoney was beyond humiliation, no lie too gross, he’d just defy it out and (if he can) kill her. I realize she must have escaped with her life again as otherwise we would not have the autobiography she wrote to tell us of this. We’d never have known.
There is a Pamela tale embedded too: the woman Dorothy who Stoney continually raped and who gave birth to a child has lowly parents who are terrified just in the way of Pamela’s parents, a brother intimidated out of testifying.
I’ll mention though that Mary does not seem to learned the lesson that a man who lies, has another mistress and wife should not be taken up with. One reason Stoney can abduct her is she has begun to be courted by a Captain Farrer and goes out with him to an iron-monger’s shop — to take the air. Farrer was not match for Stoney and his thugs. On the other hand, I peeked forward and discovered that Mary was able to escape because Farrer came after her with her agent’s son and enabled her to escape in a confusion of violence.
Her lawyer was a man who had no fame and no credentials (those with it would not lest they hurt their reputation): James Farrer. Captain Farrer was the lawyer’s brother.
I finished this powerful book last night. Yes Mary did escape but not after enduring several more horrific beatings (once with a rod all over her body), three attempted rapes (she manages to refuse him entrance to her vagina, as he would by law or custom could then say she had returned to him). She finally escaped during a melee caused by Captain Farrer and a couple of male friends of his, one of which was a nephew related to her.
One of the realities of life is one never knows who will come through for you; it is often not a relative, or is a relative several times removed.
The tide of public opinion had turned. Stoney probably had just oppressed and terrorized too many people, too often showed his pathological behavior in public to too many. He did never cease to sully her reputation and there never did cease those who repeated his lurid stories about her.
But it was something of a pyrrhic victory. If startlingly victorious for an 18th century woman (she got a good deal of her property back, she re-formed relationships with some of her children), still for the rest of her then shortish life she was seriously unwell emotionally and physically. She went into a retreat. She moved into Stourfield House, a country mansion in a remote area of Hamshire.
Unfortunately too her mainstay, Mary Morgan died (herself badly wonded at times) shortly after Mary made this final move. Mary missed her friend very much. Her children’s fates show the damage inflicted on them by the father’s treatment, their lack of someone helping them out, the notoriety they endured too. Her children did not lead particularly fulfilling lives nor look for marriage for happiness. William, the youngest, joined the navy and perished in a storm in 1807. His half-sister, Mary, settled in Bath; she never married. Maria, her toddler died in 1806, age 38. George died at 35 in the same year. Thomas married three times, and outlived his one child. Anna, who betrayed her mother for Stoney, married once briefly. John and Sarah were lovers, and after she died of TB, he fell in love with his maid and married her shortly before his death in an attempt to legitimize their son. Mary’s now debt-ridden lawyer also died young.
In the last pages of the book, Moore says that given her wealth, connections and education, her intelligence (in some areas), Mary Eleanor Bowes could have been important as an accomplished botanist, patroness of the sciences, these impulses were stifled by the first husband and strangled by the second (p. 308). What she is important for, Moore says, is an example of remarkable triumph and can be seen as an encourager for reform for women then and today. This seems to me too optimistic by a helluva lot. I’d say hers is another story which supports Mary Trouille’s findings about male violence inflicted on women which in many places and ways goes on unchecked today.
Stoney outlived Mary Eleanor Bowes by a number of years. Tellingly, he had gotten himself another female punch-bag for life: Polly Tomkins who he ceaselessly impregnated, beat, starved, terrorized. For many years she was not permitted to come to the front door. I’d say another "lesson" or inference here goes beyond the abuse of women theme: this man was genuinely frighteningly a crazed misogynist. What is said about Sade is true of him. Throughout the book he grabs women, servants, prostitutes, wives, nieces, sisters, and treats them horrifically sexually, socially. And he seems always to have another when one gives out, manages to escape. We see how the criminal justice system fails women here; it failed them then and continues to fail them now:
Bowles left a memoir (The Confessions) which her husband forced her to write; it’s a frightening document, abject and a catalogue of all her sins (including babies out of wedlock, abortions); it was used by him to try to fight her suit for a divorce and has been used to characterize her adversely. On the misleading chararterization of this and other memoirs (George Anne Bellamy’s is just one) as "scandal chronicles," see Caroline Breashears, The Female Appeal Memoir: Genre and Female Literary Tradition in Eighteenth Century England, Modern Philology, 107:4 (Mary 2010).
Moore’s book shows that no one should ever give unqualified power to anyone over any one else ever — that includes over children. And along the way reveals how the system of hierarchy and privilege in the 18th century supported the subjection of women.
I’d recommend this book to all for the level of reality she gets at in many stories beyond Mary’s, for the way Moore makes her connections and for the clarity and force of her writing style. I’d read another book by her in a shot. I see she has written one on John Hunter, The Knife Man (Hunter performed the earliest modern-style operations)..