This is one topic I wish was a relic of the past, but sadly it is not. 🙁
In my most recent novel, A Virtue of Marriage, Darcy and Elizabeth face the nasty business of trying to stop domestic violence going on between the man and wife of another couple. We all know how strong the patriarchal system was in Jane Austen’s time, and still solidly in place in our own times, and the difficulty was knowing when to intervene and when to not.
The only hope a woman had before there was 911 to call, really before there was even a police force, was a male family member. The local magistrate might get involved in truly egregious cases, but for a day-to-day hit or two, there was no relief. When I read Jane Austen’s books that largely focus on the act of finding a spouse, I am always reminded that for many women of that time period, it was a game of Russian Roulette. Will this man change after we say “I do?” Because after the wedding breakfast, that was it, a woman was forever more under her husband’s rule.
Was domestic violence only a plague of the lower classes? Absolutely not.
One of the worst cases in public memory just before Jane Austen’s writing years would be that of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore. She fell for the tricks of a fortune hunter who squandered her money and beat her endlessly. The acts of depravity this man wrought with candlesticks, whips, and other weapons for eight years against his wife, won her a rare divorce in 1786. Without the servants’ testimonies and likely the lower class status of her husband (SHE held a title, not him), Mary Bowes would just be another wife killed by her husband.
And unlike today where many custody battles award the children to the mother, in Regency times, in the rare granting of a divorce, it was then next to impossible for a woman to win her children. For many women in abusive situations, which was widespread and encouraged for domestic order, there was no option of running away. To leave, she would have no means to support herself, would bring shame upon her family for abandoning her marriage, and would likely be leaving her children behind.
Two hundred years later, men and women still face the same problems. There is not always relief found from police or our courts, and many spouses stay in their abusive marriages to protect the children.
If you or someone you love are victims of domestic abuse, there are organizations out there willing to help. In the United States, that phone number is 1-800-799-7233 or the website www.thehotline.org. They have a generic website address in case someone needing help is monitored in their computer usage. Other countries I’m sure have similar organizations, in the United Kingdom for example, http://www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk/ .
These organizations can always use donations as well as they help men and women find legal aid, safe shelters, and develop plans for leaving. It’s never easy to leave an abusive partner, in some cases it’s all the victim knows, perhaps having grown up in an abusive household.
In my book, I was able to live out the fantasy of the abuser getting his just desserts. I wish that was more often the reality of these situations. There are more than a few relatives I would dearly love to send a burly footman named Declan to visit . . . but all I can do is encourage the victims to leave and be there to support them if they do. Some might think that in Jane Austen’s time, domestic violence wasn’t that big a deal because it was so common, but I disagree. There is no getting accustomed to pain inflicted upon you by another.
There’s never a time period where it’s okay to beat a spouse. And in Regency England, while the abusers may have all thought life was fine and dandy, I have no doubts that women regularly called upon each other and other subtle help they could muster to try to stop the violence, even if it was not an organized movement like it is today. I wish my imaginings of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet had been there to help them.