Saturday, December 3, 2011

An Amazing Tale For Our Time--Two Centuries Old and As Modern as Today

I picked this book up in a Dublin shop and I couldn't put it down. Read Wedlock, by Wendy Moore and your jaw will drop and stay there as you read this true tale in which the victim finally--with the help of a small cadre of servants--prevails over her abuser.

Even today, one of the worst things that victims in abusive relationships must face--whether it is a child with an abusive parent, or a person with an abusive spouse--is how little credence the rest of the world places in that person's suffering. We just don't want to believe that the nice man down the street has a layer beneath the one we daily see--and that in this underside of his life he is very frightening.

That charismatic woman we meet at the office? What if she is lovely in public and cruel in private? As humans, we don't seem to want to know these things.

So, if you get a chance to read the true story of perhaps the worst bounder in English history and how his heiress wife finally turns the tables on him, you will find it, not only better than the best 18th century potboiler, but an eye opener. Heed what you read, because it goes on around you.

Wedlock by historian Wendy Moore seems like something out of Dickens or Daniel Defoe. It is even more flabbergasting for being an absolutely true story.

It tells the tale of Mary Elizabeth Bowes, one of the wealthiest of Britain's Georgian heiresses and how, after she was widowed at a young age by a peer who was almost as wealthy as she, she plunges into a true nightmare of marriage with a man who appears to be a charming, financially secure Anglo-Irish officer.

It may not be surprising, considering how most of us tend to take the people we meet at face value, that it took eight years for the people who loved Lady Mary to even begin to grasp the horrors she was forced to endure. Worse yet, her legal protection in the 18th century was very limited.

As a married woman, her property and money--even her children--were legally believed to belong to her husband. So when she does finally find the strength to escape her abuser, she has a huge struggle to assert her legal standing.

But even the law courts of her time found her case extraordinary. And when the case finally did go before the bench, it set a number of precedents for the centuries to come.

Victims like Mary Eleanor Bowes are diminished twice--first by their abusers. And then, by those around them who cannot or will not believe that what the victim faces is true. As Christine Ann Lawson writes: "Invalidation has two primary characteristics. First, it tells the individual that she is wrong in both her description and her analyses of her own experiences ... Second it attributes her experiences to socially unacceptable characteristics of personality traits." Blame the victim--this is not a new phenomenon.

Thus we say to ourselves: "She has always been difficult. No wonder she makes her husband so angry." Or, "It is too bad she and her mother can't get along. There must be some jealousy involved." Or, "I've never even seen him angry. What can she be talking about?"

This amazing book should at least make the reader aware that monsters do exist, even in the best possible circles. That victims can be well-educated, wear lovely clothes, have wonderful manners and values, and speak many languages. And their abusers can look just like that too. The abuse of children and the abuse of spouses takes place even in the best of families--not just among the poor.

For society in any century--as we have seen in the recent abuse cases at Penn State--denial is so much more comfortable than confrontation.

Wedlock is an eye-opener for our time. It reads like a novel. But it is as modern and real as it can be. And though it took place centuries ago, if you look around you carefully, you will see it before you in the 21st century.  (P.S.  Mary Eleanor Bowes, through the youngest of her sons from her first marriage, was the several times great great great grandmother of the present Queen Elizabeth's mother, the late Queen Mother, nee, Miss Elizabeth Bowes Lyon.)

Wendy Moore
published by Orion Books
2009: London

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