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Victorian Era Adultery

In the Victorian era, marriage was not as romanticized or fairytale-like as depicted in many of the novels of the time. On the contrary, love actually played a minor role in the majority of the marriages that took place. An engagement was entered into as one would approach a business deal, and there were some generally accepted rules and guidelines to follow.

Prostitution in the Victorian Era Photo: istock photo

Could adultery result in divorce?

For Victorians, divorce was extremely expensive; it was also very hard to procure. Women and men stayed in unhappy marriages for numerous reasons. Many stayed away from divorce because of the stigma attached to divorced women. It was also considered a societal taboo.

The unequal status of women to men is highlighted by divorce laws, through the unequal circumstances in which divorce was granted. A man could divorce a woman merely on the grounds of adultery. Yet a woman had to prove her husband guilty of adultery combined with cruelty, bigamy or incest. The unequal status of women to men was also evident through how the courts classified married and single females.

Legal rights of women after marriage

When a Victorian man and woman married, the rights of the woman were legally given over to her spouse. This suspension of the married woman’s legal personality was known as coverture. An unmarried woman was known in the law as a feme sole (a single woman), a married woman as a femme couvert (a covered woman)

The Matrimonial Causes Act passed in 1857 allows divorce but only in limited situations. It imposes matrimonial double standards. It permits men to divorce on grounds of adultery, but not women. This was the kind of situation which existed in Victorian England, where different sets of rules applied to men and women. Adultery was an acceptable ground for divorce for men but not for women.

Divorce was difficult to obtain; the only acceptable reason for divorce was adultery, and even then it was only a valid reason for a man. Women could use adultery as an excuse to divorce their husbands, but they also had to supplement it with a reason proving their husbands engaged in incest, bigamy, or excessive cruelty.

Though this was a double standard, the reason for it was this: men were viewed to take care of their wives, and thought that their fidelity should not matter; women, on the other hand, if caught cheating, were seen as disrespecting the care of their husbands. It shows the existing inequality between men and women in Victorian England. Men were seen as protecting their wives while women were seen as the dependants.

Laws were modified in the mid-19th century to make divorce more accessible to both men and women, but it was still scarce. Women saw marriage as a way to gain independence from their families and start a new life, even though their husbands were granted all of the power.

Divorce was extremely expensive; it entailed the loss of wealth and property. Since it accumulated from generation to generation and helped to strengthen the family line, divorce was neither economically nor socially practical. It would guarantee the family loses some of its strength and influence by giving up property and wealth. Thus adultery was an important ground for divorce and is a key element in various Victorian novels such as Jude the Obscure etc.

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