Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review: Wedlock

When I heard that a new biography for Mary Eleanor Bowes was coming out I was more than excited. The Countess of Strathmore was a feisty, vivacious woman of the Enlightenment. Her love of pets and interest and patronage in botany were only overshadowed by her tragic marriage to what can only be described as a horrible sociopath. Mary and her story are very interesting to me but I craved more juicy details; so as luck would have it Wendy Moore provides just those in her new book Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore. That may be a long title, but it's also a great summery and sale pitch for Mary's harrowing tale.

Mary was the richest heiress in Great Britain at the time of her marriage to the Earl of Strathmore. She settled down to married life and to motherhood, which proved to be disappointing. When her husband died not long afterward, the widowed (and still filthy rich) countess made up for lost time by partying in London, having numerous boyfriends, and finally engrossing herself in her educational interests. Unfortunately, one of her lovers turned out to be a schemer who would form a series of the most diabolical plots in order to capture her wealth. Andrew Robinson Stoney faked a duel in her honour and a fatal wound in order for her promise to marry him. Mary, wanting to grant a dying man his last wish, obliged. This proved to be a near fatal error. Mary soon became a prisoner to her new husband who tortured her for the fun of it. The once glamourous countess was forced to wear rags and be severely beaten on a daily basis [pictured right during the height of her abuse] while her husband brought home mistress after mistress and raped their servants. As jaw dropping as Mary's abuse is, her divorce trial is even more amazing, considering the little rights women had in this era.

"...[Judge] Buller had become the laughingstock by suggesting that a husband could lawfully beat his wife as long as he used a stick no bigger than his thumb. Yet even "Judge Thumb" was scandalized at the depraved extremes of [Andrew Robinson Stoney]'s conduct, which now unfolded before the court."

I will admit, this book started out slow, and therefore disappointingly for me. Moore has a good sense of narrative but also a tendency to drone on about all sorts of things in an effort not to leave out any information. A totally understandable concern, but not always the best commodity for non-fiction. This would gradually bore and then veer me away from the main context. But with introductions out of the way the book picked up and the real dirt began to be revealed; that's when Moore began to shine.

There are many challenges in writing Bowe's biography. Moore documents almost every case of the poor woman's abuse that she could find. She does this all while avoiding making the individual cases sound too repetitive or like a Lifetime movie. The true and awful nature of Stoney is also revealed in full force and with thoughtful analysis. Where Georgian court trials can get long-winded and tedious, Moore manages to cut out the dispensable aspects to keep the story going.

Wedlock is definitely worth reading, even if it is a little tough to get through the first third of the book. Mary Eleanor is an amazing woman, who, without realizing it, became a pioneer in women's divorce settlements, and therefore, individual rights. I'm proud to say that her biographer does her justice. Wedlock is already available in the UK under the sumptuous subtitle: How Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match and will be on US Shelves on 10 March.

7 comments:

Ms. Lucy said...

Sounds like another goody for my 'to read' list. Thanks for this interesting and detailed review, Heather.

Amy @ Passages to the Past said...

Fantastic review! I have this one on my wishlist and am patiently waiting until March. Such a sad story!

Paul Miller said...

I want to read it, too. Although I bet it will infuriate me. Being that I'm a person of mild disposition and few opinions.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Another book to add to the list of books I will be buying in London. I might need another suitcase!

Ingrid Mida said...

I appreciate your candid review of the book. I wonder why the editor didn't step in and edit out the boring parts. It sounds like it would make a riveting movie.

Anonymous said...

Is this a review of the UK or US version? They're often edited separately.

Heather Carroll said...

I do think you will all enjoy the story, which just happened to be the inspiration behind Barry Lyndon. It is a good read, so you'll have to make sure to remember to take it off the wishlist and into the shopping cart!

@ Anon- I wrote to both publishing companies and only the US publishers responded, so my review is based off the preliminary copy for the US. I actually will probably buy myself a nice UK copy since mine didn't have the nice pictures or footnotes I expect the real copies to have.

@Ingrid- I was surprised as well, but perhaps since it was a preliminary copy, the shelf copies could be slightly different. You never know!