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Wedlock: Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match

By Hannah Greig | Published in History Today 2009 
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The 18th-century rags-to-riches story of  Mary Eleanor Bowes

Wedlock Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match

Wendy Moore

Weidenfeld and Nicoison 359pp £18.99 ISBN 978 O 297 85331 2

Wendy Moore's Wedlock reverses the rags-to-riches journey biographers often prefer. Her subject, Mary Eleanor Bowes, was born into fantastic privilege. At 13, sole heiress to a coalmining fortune, Mary was reputedly the wealthiest woman in Britain. Early marriage to the Earl of Strathmore added rank to fortune (he unconventionally adopted the Bowes name in recognition of her assets). The earl's untimely death released her from a lacklustre union, leaving a still youthful Mary titled, rich and independent. Despite such promising circumstances, Mary mistakenly married again, this time to an abusive husband-gaoler, Andrew Stoney, a sharper who inspired Thackeray's Barry Lyndon and is designated 'Georgian Britain's worst husband' by Moore.

Intellectually gifted, Mary had been an aspiring botanist, nurturing rare species in state-of-the-art, hot houses. By her mid-thirties, all learned ambi- tions had been crushed bv ill- chosen spouses, her treasured piants and family estates lay neglected and Mary found herself battered, imprisoned, hounded, frail and wearing her servants' cast-off clothes.

Indeed, 1786 was surely a year when British brides trembled at the altar. The potential miseries of wedlock were exposed to a shocked public when Mary was kidnapped in London's Oxford Street by the vicious Stoney. Following years of horrific torture, Mary had fled the marital home under the protection of a servant. As she instigated a barrage of" legal proceedings against her tormentor, Britain learnt of cruelties endured behind a façade of polite gentility. With Mary on the run, Stoney (hoping to thwart court action by forcing a conjugal reconciliation) pursued his fugitive wife and orchestrated her dramatic abduction. Tracked by panicking lawyers, loyal servants, law enforcement officials und vigilante locals, Mary was eventually rescued and, with unprecedented support from the law courts, freed from her matrimonial bonds.

Drawing on such thrilling material and based on close archival research, Moore's elegantly-written book recounts the twists of fate that left a loaded countess hitched to a violent fraudster. Her book is as careful as it is compelling, a steady story built on sound knowledge of Georgian history. While to specialists the details of property law, marital rights, social behaviours and the scandal mongering of the Georgian press will be familiar. Moore rightly outlines these for the general reader to contextualise the drama. It is such a tragic talc we might wish it was a fiction, but Wedlock is all the more enthralling for its grounding in historical fact.



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