Domestic Violence in Regency Times

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.

12 Responses to Domestic Violence in Regency Times

  1. It’s difficult to fathom that a society so focused on civil behavior and preserving their reputations could turn a blind eye to domestic violence – as long as it was privately administered. I was shocked to discover that a man could legally beat his wife with a stick – as long as it was no thicker than his thumb. The bigger the man, the bigger the stick, right? It is certainly one aspect of that era that is shameful. We may not have overcome it in practice, but at least women now have legal protections that they can use to escape the trap of spousal abuse. Even now it takes courage and determination in the face of enormous financial, legal and social obstacles.

  2. A topic that, unfortunately, never goes away. 🙁 Definitely going to research Mary Bowes. She sounds tragically fascinating and I’m happy for the positive ending!

  3. One of the things that makes me feel fortunate to be living today rather than in the past is how different life is for women now, we have a lot more in the way of rights and protection. On the one hand, unless you had an independent fortune, you needed to marry, but if you married, you had better choose well as he had absolute power over you and could treat you as badly as he liked. And you wouldn’t necessarily get much opportunity to get to know somebody before marriage, so for many people Charlotte’s words would be all too true, happiness in marriage would be entirely a matter of chance.

  4. I worked as a caseworker with Children, Youth and Families and attended many workshops about this ongoing problem. In hearing the President of Turning Point (an organization for abused spouses, etc.) I learned that many women leave and go back – over and over again, believing the partner’s promise to change. The woman speaking, a professional woman, had left her husband 12 times! I can’t speak from personal experience as a spouse but as a child of an abuser, I did promise myself that one or the other of us would have a “final” fate if a man ever laid a hand on me. Witnessing it first hand truly scars a person, child or partner. (My husband has never touched me in that manner.) I am glad you and your children had a chance to start over.

  5. A most interesting and important post. What a difficult and disturbing part of life. Thanks for your realistic revelation.

  6. Thanks Elizabeth for your post. ME Bowes must had a dreadful life during those 8 years. Considering the times I’m surprised she survived and was able to get rid of that guy, not to mention he was sent to prison. Jenni, I’m so sorry that you had to survive in an abusive modern day marriage. Thankfully you have a happy ending with your new DH and like you say, were able to find yourself again and move forward. Best wishes with your upcoming publication. ~Jen Red~

  7. Elizabeth, Thank you for bravely shedding light into this dark side of the romantic Regency period. Well done!

  8. In most era’s there were and are as many good men as bad men. We live in luckier times when you can turn to someone for help, be it the police, voluntary organisations or friends and family. Women for so long had no rights and were owned by the man they married. They had little recourse other than perhaps a male family member if they had one who were so inclined to help.

  9. This post hit a little too close to home. Thankfully, I am now happily married to my own Mr. Darcy/Tilney/Knightly/. And thanks to the popularity of my books, I’ve been able to raise my seven children and live off of my royalties and still be home for the littlest one–who starts school next year. When the cops finally told us to leave my ex or we’d be dead–I only had a few books published. We escaped to my parents house where after months of sobbing, I finally woke up and got to work. Wrote 13 books in 2013 and haven’t looked back since. (in June my 25th will publish) in 2014 I met the man of my dreams and we’ve been married since Nov. And together we have 10 kids. But they love him and he–amazing man that he is–adores and loves them too. Anyway, yes… I am grateful for this day and age. And for women’s rights. And policemen who care. But mostly i’m grateful for hope and a new belief in happily ever afters… and magic… and dreams… and fairy tales. I’m grateful to find me again. I’d missed her so much, I wasn’t sure she existed anymore… But she does. And I’m back and life is just *lesigh* perfectly imperfect. <3

  10. There is always a dark side in any period, whether it is in the Middle Ages, Regency, Victorian or modern times. Fortunately we live in a time where it is easier to get out of an abusive marriage and NGOs who help provide financial aid and emotional support to the victims. Thanks for giving the abuser his just desserts in your story. He deserved it!

Your thoughts are precious!