Marriage & Divorce in the 19th Century

René François Xavier Prinet, Sonate à Kreutzer, 1901While writing The Legacy Series, I needed to extensively research the reality of marriage and divorce in the 19th century. It’s fascinating reading when you take romance out of the equation and check back into reality. Truth be told, marriage and divorce was nothing like it is today. Marriages in the Victorian era were described as being three kinds: those contracted for convenience, those produced by sympathy or love, and those entered into from duty.

The aristocracy put great importance on the antiquity and nobility of families. Not only was the future bride or groom’s bloodline of importance but also their wealth. Though love in marriage might be ideal, it was not a practical reality, and people were told not to expect too much from marriage. If you found an ounce of happiness in your union, be thankful.

What about unhappy marriages? Divorce was not easily obtained. Extramarital sexual relations were a normal feature of life. After marriage, adultery was almost inevitable. Adultery, believe it or not, was preferred to divorce, mainly because severing a marital union was difficult and expensive to obtain. Many aristocratic men forced into arrange marriages had sex with their wives in order to produce heirs, while they bedded their mistresses for love and pleasure. A wife had the duty to obey her husband and produce children, and in return for her obedience, the husband owed her protection and security.

Divorce in England and France evolved over the years, coupled with Catholic and Anglican restrictions. Since Suzette, in The Legacy Series, is a married French woman, her cause for divorce can only be if Philippe is an adulterer and is coupled with other unpleasant circumstances such as physical cruelty, etc. Adultery alone was not grounds for divorce for a woman.

On the other hand, Philippe could divorce Suzette for adultery and no other cause. To file for divorce, a petition had to be brought before the president of the chambers, and there had to be two attempts before the court to reconcile the marriage. If the marriage failed to reconcile, then court proceedings would continue. Upon the divorce, the children would go to the custody of the husband in 1884, but by 1886 it was left at the discretion of the court. The wife had to take back her maiden name and was forbidden to keep her husband’s name. The husband could remarry at once, but the wife had to wait 10 months after divorce before she was allowed to marry again.

As for Robert and marriages in Victorian England, the rules were similar. “The husband could obtain a divorce for adultery, the wife could obtain a divorce for adultery coupled with cruelty or desertion for two or more years, and also for incestuous or bigamous adultery, or rape, or unnatural offenses.” (Encyclopedia Britannica – Read the extensive source on marriage and divorce online.)

Divorce could be a lengthy and costly procedure that only the rich could afford. As romance writers, we sometimes bend the rules to cater to our character’s needs and unrealistic plots trying to leave that happily ever after for our readers. Just remember, it wasn’t always that easy to find happiness in marriage during ages past.

Vicki