The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 167-8

18th C

The nearest arrangement to divorce available to couples mid 18th C was agreement on Private Articles of Separation, by which the husband was no longer liable for his wife's debts, but neither party was free to remarry, although they could co-habit with other partners.

The safely married Georgian male was in an envious position: he had absolute freedom to behave in any manner he chose, provided it was lawful. Heavy drinking and fornication were accepted as normal behaviour for men like Gainsborough and his circle and their wives could do nothing but accept the situation.

They had, of course, their own ways of dealing with an errant husband. In Margaret's case she, by all contemporary accounts, kept a close eye on her husband's expenditure and earned herself a reputation for being mean and unwelcoming to his friends. Very few of them liked her and even fewer stayed in touch with her after her husband's death. Gainsborough often referred to his wife as "old Margaret" in a rather perjorative manner when writing to his old friend Unwin. She was in her thirties at the time and there is more than a hint in his comments about her to indicate that some of his male friends believed him to be a hen-pecked husband.

In the 187 years from 1670 to 1857 there were only 325 divorces registered in England, all but four of them obtained by men.

Forced marraiges were occasionally wrecked by an unwilling bride. Lady Mary Coke scandalized society by refusing to consummate her marriage and as a result she was kept a virtual prisoner at Holkham Hall in Norfolk for a year before being humiliated by a public annulment.