Wendy Moore’s tale of the marital struggles of the Countess of Strathmore makes Wedlock one of the more insightful biographies to be written about an aristocratic woman of the 18th century.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Mary Eleanor Bowes was not destined for the complacent domestic existence required of a dutiful Georgian wife. By the time she married her second husband, Andrew Robinson Stoney in 1777, she had been made the widow of the Earl of Strathmore, given birth to five children, taken a lover (George Gray) and thrown herself into the ‘dissipation’ of 18th-century society. Her situation took a turn for the worst when she threw her lot in with Stoney, an Irish fraudster on whom Thackeray based his character, Barry Lyndon. Stoney was more interested in his wife’s vast fortune than her happiness and in a series of harrowing incidents, beat and terrorised her into submission.
Many aspects of the Countess of Strathmore’s story diverge from the usual narrative, which makes this book not only an interesting read but worthy of note for scholars of legal history. Not only did Mary mount an escape attempt with the assistance of her sympathetic servants but successfully managed to bring Stoney to court. Here, Moore paints a strong picture of the realities of life for women who were largely unprotected by the legal system. Moore has also been blessed with a wealth of primary source material and makes the most of this, using deposition statements as well as personal correspondence to flesh out her story. In the countess’s case, money and title helped to buy justice, but not without a bitter struggle. Although she was successful in her divorce and in seeing her husband imprisoned, the debacle destroyed both her character and her health.
Hallie Rubenhold is the author of Lady Worsley’s Whim (Chatto & Windus, 2008)