Bigamy and bureaucracy

NPG 4478; Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (nÈe Braddon) by William Powell Frith
Mary Elizabeth Braddon by William Powell Frith, oil on canvas, exhibited 1865

 

Over the Christmas holiday I was reading some Victorian novels: I re-read Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and then I went on to another novel of hers: Aurora Floyd. This too, turned out to have bigamy as a central part of the plot. In fact, a recent academic study by Maia McAleavey, The Bigamy Plot: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian  Novel, reckons there are over 200 Victorian novels with bigamy or prospective bigamy as part of the plot.

McAleavey links the sudden appearance of this plot (which nineteenth century critics, such as Margaret Oliphant particularly associated with Braddon) to changing laws on marriage. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 specified the new formalities required to make a marriage legally binding, while the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 made divorce more readily available. McAleavey sees bigamy as a plot device which provides an evasive “quiet” alternative to adultery or divorce, allowing the author to show either an innocent victim committing the offence unknowingly or a villain knowingly flouting the law, rather than merely the seventh commandment.

I want to bring a slightly wider perspective to the question, however and ask why the bigamy plot wasn’t popular in medieval times. After all, as Sara McDougall, Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne shows, “bigamy” (in the sense of remarriage while the previous spouse was alive) was relatively common. The relatively few examples of medieval literature she finds using this plot concentrate on one single version of it: the husband who goes to war and is believed dead, but who returns either just before or after his “widow” remarries.

This story (which is as old as the Iliad) finds a real-life parallel in the sixteenth-century case of Martin Guerre. But the location of all these real-life and fictional cases is key: the spouse or supposed spouse returns “home”. These premodern plots reflect the realities of worlds before bureaucracy, where identification, recognition and acknowledgement were almost exclusively local. A would-be bigamist who moved only a day’s journey or so away could effectively reinvent themselves and change their marital circumstances. Indeed, in a world without the registration of births, marriages and deaths, proving the original person had even existed came down to sometimes fallible eye-witness statements.

In contrast, Victorian bigamy plots take place in a society where bureaucracy and faster travel make reinventing oneself via relocation increasingly difficult. It has become easier to trace people, at least those above the lowest ranks in society. Written evidence, such as passenger lists and city directories, play important roles in the novels of Braddon and others. Lady Audley fears that she cannot rely on her secluded country location to protect her from her first husband finding her. Indeed, it is no longer so secluded with the coming of the railways: she is able to go up to a London for a day’s burglary at one point.

But bureaucracy also offers new possibilities for the bigamy plot in another way, especially useful to a sensation novelist such as Braddon. Traditionally, the revelation of bigamy requires a confrontation between the first spouse and one of the second married pair or would-be married pair. The novelist has to engineer this confrontation and make it plausible that the returned spouse is believed, that the previous marriage is recognised as existing. Lady Audley’s bigamous secrets survive for longer than expected because George Talboys, her first husband, confronts her in secret and she responds by murdering him (or at least attempting to do so).

The ending of Lady Audley’s Secret also makes clear the poor planning of his bigamous marriage by Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. He confines his mad wife to his own attic, making her available to confront the would-be second Mrs Rochester.  In contrast, once Lady Audley has been diagnosed as “mad”, she is securely removed to an asylum in Belgium and thus cannot cause further harm.

Victorian bureaucracy, however, also allowed bigamy to be revealed in a different and more definite way.  Aurora Floyd’s first marriage, although it is repeatedly hinted at during much of the novel, is first made explicit in the most dramatic circumstances. Her first husband’s murdered body is found with a blood-stained document hidden in his coat: that document proves to be their marriage certificate.

A society in which every marriage, even a clandestine one, had to be officially recorded provides more scope for drama than is given by the careful weighing of evidence necessary to prove a prior marriage or betrothal revealed in medieval archives  such as the York Cause Papers. Bigamy was not a new plot device in the mid-nineteenth century, but Victorian technological and bureaucratic developments allowed many new and sensational variations on the theme.

 

 

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