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Victorian Divorce: We Are Amused

QueenVIn today’s world our news is so littered with celebrity break ups, romances, and affairs that we are no longer surprised by the crazy antics people get themselves into. As a prime example, take the Kardashian/Humphries divorce debacle that has been recirculated through every media outlet known to man for the past year.

Then, there is the Bethenny Frankel divorce, which was projected as a peaceful dissolution; yet, this week when the news hit that Mrs. Frankel’s husband has decided to fight back, no one was much too surprised. In fact, I think the Frankel divorce had run its media circuit so vigorously in the past month that this truly new development has been quite under-reported.

But back to the original point: American media has effectively stomped out any surprise we many have at a personal crises. However, that doesn’t mean we expected the same practice to be observed in the Victorian Era.

Strict is Spelled V-i-c-t-o-r-i-a-n

When people think of the Victorian Era things like modesty, stiff upper lips, rigid social customs, and the frumpiest British matriarch are some of the usual first thoughts. But with the publication of Victorian divorce records, this might very well change.

The Victorian Era is dated to Queen Victoria’s reign, which lasted from 1837 to 1901, and marks a time of affluence in England. The Queen focused her efforts to improving her homeland, especially the people’s sense of society and custom. In the Victorian Era there were firmly observed customs, like women were to cover her arms and legs at all times, art with nudity was considered taboo, and social interaction between men and women was at an all-time low. For a more complete feel of the era, consider Queen Victoria’s most famous quote: “We are not amused.”

Ye Olde Divorce

The British divorce records only go as far back as 1858 because divorce and marriage was a matter solely under the church’s control. Yet in 1858 the British Matrimonial Causes Act was passed, which made divorce a civil matter instead of under the church’s jurisdiction. However, divorce was brought all the way up to parliament to decide. In addition, divorce was a luxury for the rich, so only 1,200 divorce applications were made annually. Today, there are 120,000 divorce petitions filed each year.

Oh Really?

Well, sorry, Queen Victoria, but we are most certainly amused by the recent publication of British divorce records.

Apparently, one of those 1,200 divorce applications was filed by a Henry Robinson, who read his wife’s diary only to find her writing about illicit rendezvous with a younger married man. Henry Robinson’s wife, Isabella Robinson, testified in court that her diary entries were fiction, and the court bought it. Mrs. Robinson won the trial, and became the basis of the novel “Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace,” by Kate Summerscale. Now we all know who the song “Mrs. Robinson,” was really based on.

In another Victorian divorce trial, Prime Minister Charles Mordaunt’s wife, Harriet, was accused of carrying on multiple affairs with multiple men. The affairs couldn’t be substantiated, but poor Harriet was later proclaimed insane and lived out her life in an asylum.

Shocked to hear tales like these that play out in books and movies are somewhat based on real life? Well, maybe just a little. We are, after all, of the generation when celebrities marry and divorce in the time it takes us to make dinner. But still, it’s good to know the Victorians knew how to make a headline or two.

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