One of the richest heiresses in eighteenth century Georgian Britain, Mary Eleanor Bowes had every reason to expect a glowing future. Educated beyond her female peers, indulged by her father, and pampered with every possible luxury, the young heiress satisfied her taste for literary and botanical endeavours, but at the same time was a very poor judge of men. When Andrew Robinson Stoney, a handsome Irish soldier, was gravely injured in a duel for her honour, she married him almost immediately, told that he had only days to live. To her surprise, he recovered within hours of their marriage and proceeded to wreak a brutal reign of terror on her life, beating, kidnapping, and imprisoning her and any other females who fell too closely within his grasp.
But Mary Eleanor wouldn’t endure his tyranny forever, and her fight back, for herself and her children, resulted in hope for all abused wives throughout Britain.
What a fascinating book. This popular history, which reads almost like a novel at times, traces the fall of an incredibly rich and privileged woman due to a couple of bad, life-changing decisions, and is a fascinating look at how a single man could ruin the lives of everyone around him. Stoney wasn’t even born particularly highly, but by simply using his attractiveness and ability to lie guilelessly, he managed to bag himself not one but two heiresses. By the standards of their day, his treatment was judged out of the ordinary, but both of his wives had very little power to free themselves from his clutches.
Mary Eleanor Bowes herself was a very compelling character and I felt for her very strongly throughout the course of the book. She was spoiled when young, and did obviously have bad judgement and suffered from a lack of maturity despite her rather more advanced book learning, but none of that meant that she deserved to be so ill-treated. I found all of the struggles she went through to finally free herself to be enlightening – married women under 18th century law genuinely had zero rights. She no longer owned any of the property her father had bestowed on her, as her new husband forced her to renounce her prenuptial contract keeping her own income and properties, and was kept a virtual prisoner by servants hired by her husband. She had nothing, not even her children most of the time.
Her fight to regain those rights is engaging and heartening, as it must have been for any of the women of her time following the case. It made me very glad that I wasn’t born in the eighteenth century, and that so many women before me fought for our gender, as I hope we continue to do so. Indeed, Moore lists when women gained some of the rights Mary Eleanor deserves, and some of them are depressingly recent, which only underscores the fact that there is still so much ground we need to gain.
A peek into the real-life trauma of a disastrous eighteenth century marriage, Mary Eleanor’s fight for her life and family in Wedlock makes for fascinating reading, even as it reminds us of how much women have fought for their rights over the past couple of hundred years.