Amongst the cases included in the collection is an 1859 attempt by an engineer called Henry Robinson to divorce his wife Isabella, after he discovered a detailed account of an affair with a younger man in her diary. She, however, said the account was fictional, brought on my hallucinations associated with a “disease of the womb” and the jury accepted her claims.
The case became the basis of the book Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale published last year.
Divorce was rare in the 19th Century, due to high costs and strict laws – only around 1,200 were granted each year, the Mail reports, compared to at least 120,000 per year now.
Couples could not divorce by mutual consent so staged adultery was common. Miriam Silverman, an historian at Ancestery.co.uk, tells the Telegraph: “As couples needed a reason to divorce, fake adultery ‘evidence’ wasn’t uncommon. The gentleman would often hire a hotel room, where a paid-for ‘mistress’ would partially undress and they would both sit on the edge of the bed. The wife would then burst in at a pre-arranged time with a detective and photographer, to catch her husband in the act. Such evidence was eventually seen for what it was and dismissed in court as collusive, but for many years this was a tool available for those desperate to divorce.”
Prior to 1858, divorce fell under the jurisdiction of the Church of England, only becoming a civil matter with the introduction of new legislation that year.
Until as late as 1923, men could divorce wives on the grounds of adultery alone while wives could not initiate divorce proceedings without some additional reason, such as desertion or battery (domestic violence).
Despite this, the Mail reports, around half of petitions from the period were initiated by women, with failure to consummate the marriage frequently cited as grounds for the divorce.
Photo by Andrew Dunn via Wikipedia under a Creative Commons licence