Oct 13 2010
REVIEW: Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of A Marriage, A Trial, and A Self-Made Woman by ChloÃ« Schama
Dear Ms. Schama:
I approached Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of A Marriage, A Trial, and A Self-Made Woman with appreciation and excitement at the possibility of an academic study of cultural history crossing over to popular contemporary readership. The volatile story of Theresa Longworth's secret marriage to an Irish peer and subsequent battle to prove its validity in Scotland, Ireland, and England, may not be well known, but it is emblematic of conflicting Victorian attitudes toward marriage, sex, and social propriety. Having finished Wild Romance and being relatively familiar with the general historical context of the book, I found the book interesting but not, ultimately, successful as a crossover work of narrative popular history.
Although somewhat obscure to us now, Theresa Yelverton's legal crusade to prove bigamy against Charles Yelverton, British officer and son of Viscount Avonmore, was nothing short of a sensation in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Its tabloid appeal lay both in the possibility that Yelverton had caddishly married two women and in the possibility that he had merely cavorted with one woman before marrying another. In the first case, Yelverton was a cad who scoffed at the sanctity of marriage; in the second, Theresa Longworth was either a victim or a liar and a seducer herself, and both implications involved sex. In any of these cases, the intimate details of Theresa and Charles's relationship could satisfy prurient curiosity and still be applied to any number of moral lessons and social messages.
Theresa, the daughter of an English manufacturer who was convent educated in France following the early death of her mother, was attractive, vivacious, intelligent, and free-spirited. When she met Major William Charles Yelverton on a steamer in 1852, she recognized another unconventional spirit, a man who, Schama argues, "gave her direction" in the limbo of her somewhat itinerant post-convent, pre-marriage life. Subsequent correspondence by letter founded a long-distance relationship Schama characterizes as one both instigated and maintained by Theresa's insistent, idealistic pursuit, which consistently "turned [Yelverton's] apathy into a sign of his commitment." Nonetheless, Yelverton was apparently interested enough to travel with Theresa as Mr. and Mrs., and undergo not one, but two, irregular marriage ceremonies, one in Scotland and one in Ireland.
At the time of Theresa and Charles's relationship, a legally binding marriage did not necessarily require uniform formalities. In Scotland, for example, a spoken pledge of marriage between couples, witnessed only by the Book of Common Prayer, could stand as legitimate. In Ireland, Catholics could be married by a priest, without the usual banns. England, not surprisingly, failed to recognize either as automatically legal, and once Charles married another woman – a widow named Emily Forbes – with all the "regular" formalities, it was English law, and English men (via the House of Lords), that would ultimately decide whether Theresa was legitimately married to Yelverton. The implications of legitimating a putative spouse were huge, and even with an Irish priest's declaration of marriage (which raised questions about whether the Catholic church would itself legitimate the ceremony, since Charles was Protestant), finding the couple legally wed under English law could imperil the reputations and freedom of countless men. That Theresa even attempted to have Charles prosecuted for bigamy is remarkable.
The story of Theresa Longworth Yelverton (as she referred to herself) is fascinating on many levels. First there is the extent of Theresa's legal claims of bigamy against Yelverton and his countersuit against her claim of marriage, trials in Ireland (which was decided in her favor), Scotland (which was decided against her and then for her on appeal), and finally England (decided against her), over the course of eight years (1859-1867). Should Theresa be found the legal wife of Charles, he would be responsible for her financial sustenance, as well as her reputation. Considering the speculation that Yelverton married Forbes for a $250,000 inheritance (reported by The New York Times in 1861), as opposed to Theresa's modest $1,000/year, that financial burden was no small issue. In fact, as Schama discusses, one of the strangest aspects of the relationship between Charles and Theresa was its secrecy, insisted upon by Charles because, he claimed, his uncle would discontinue his small allowance if he ever married or had children. That the uncle later disclaimed this assertion adds to the curiosity around Charles and his intentions toward Theresa.
Then there is the forbidden eroticism of their relationship and its tension with the propriety the otherwise unconventional Theresa sought in marriage. While Charles often seemed distant in his letters to Theresa, physical proximity clearly made him more amorous and assertive in trying to hold on to her. In fact, at one point during the trials Charles admits that he found the severe black gown Theresa wore as a Soeur de Charité nurse during the Crimean War particularly titillating, and numerous people testified that the couple cavorted as spouses would during the times they spent together. Whatever was going on emotionally and physically between the couple, at some level Theresa seemed to understand she needed something objectively legitimating, and, in fact, she insisted on the Irish wedding because she was worried the Scottish ceremony would not suffice. To be publicly known as a sexually engaged woman, Theresa wanted the protective respectability of marriage, which is understandable given the power men still clearly had in fashioning, interpreting, and imposing the marriage laws.
Charles, of course, had much more to lose through a declaration of bigamy (his new wife gave birth seven and a half months after they married), while Theresa had much more at stake without it. The irony of the public's fascination with all the sordid details of the relationship, all the while superficially keeping up the appearance of moral rectitude (women were strongly encouraged to leave the courtroom during the most salacious testimony, so as to protect their reputations – to hear about everything later, in private) is not much so much removed from contemporary double standards. However, I think sometimes we underestimate just how much social and economic protection women have gained (and in many cases continue to gain) from marriage, and Theresa's case is a poignant example of that reality. The presumption of legitimacy for her children, the stringency of inheritance and intestacy laws, as well as many other less tangible consequences of marriage represented protection for women of modest economic means. While a woman of means most certainly had more freedom outside of marriage, a woman of Theresa's economic standing would receive substantial economic protections in marriage, especially if she became pregnant.
However, Charles's lawyers wanted to portray Theresa as the seductress, the sexual instigator who ruined him with her persistent advances. And one of the most compelling aspects of this case is the way these competing stories about Theresa and Charles continue to vie for final authority, well beyond the legal decisions themselves. Was Theresa the victim of a man who all but admitted that he "planned" to possess Theresa sexually and then let her believe they were legally married to continue to affair? Did they conspire to pretend marriage until Theresa's jealousy over Charles's relationship with Emily Forbes drove her to falsely accuse him of bigamy? That Theresa and her story could not then and cannot now be easily corralled into neat categories illustrates the conflicting social attitudes and realities around Victorian love, sex, and marriage.
Perhaps this is why the book focuses so much more heavily on Theresa than on Charles – after all, this is Theresa's story. However, many times during the narrative I wished for a clearer picture of the man Theresa was so enamored of that she would endure trials in three countries to stake a legal claim to him. In her letters, Theresa invited Charles into "'the land of dreams,'" and Schama characterizes Theresa's sensibility as "visionary in both senses of the word – ahead of its time, and made from the fabric of dreams." Her insistence multiple times that Theresa was in love with a dream in Charles, not a real man, is reflected in his enigmatic presence throughout the book, and it remains unclear to me whether Schama herself isn't indirectly excusing his meaningful absence from the narrative. Perhaps the research reveals no more of him than what she introduces. Still, his distance from Schama's narrative weighs uneasily for me on her characterization of Theresa as the one chasing a phantom, especially in other sections of the book, where Schama seems more judgmental about Theresa's romanticization of Charles, her "plaintive cries for affection" perhaps forcing Charles into maintaining the connection.
Also, despite the wealth of historical information in the book, the section in which Charles finally seems to abandon Theresa raises numerous questions the book does not answer – questions related to whether or not Theresa was pregnant (she seemed to suspect she was, and Charles was clearly not pleased with this idea), and how/why/what illness she contracted soon after Charles visited her and that thoroughly debilitated and virtually blinded her. Thanks to Carolyn Jewel, who listened to me talk about this book and mentioned a New York Times article on the trial she had (and consequently forwarded to me), I discovered an 1861 article that recounts the story and trial, asserting that Charles poisoned Theresa – most likely in order to end a pregnancy – and then abandoned her to waste away, because her modest income did not match the substantial inheritance of Emily Forbes (another disparity not detailed in Schama's book), whom he had been seeing for months. Even if these "facts" are in dispute – as they most likely are – why not include them for the purpose of de-legitimating them, especially when they bear so heavily on later events? True or not, they fill in quite a few blanks in that section of the book.
For all the details included, Wild Romance still feels unfinished to me. Part of the problem may be that the scope of the book is quite expansive, covering Theresa's early life and correspondence with Charles, the years of their relationship and then the trials, and finally Theresa's post-trial travels to America, Asia, and South Africa, which comprise almost half the book in pages but are simply not as compellingly rendered. Despite a relationship with John Muir and an ambiguously characterized relationship with a Senegalese "boy," as well as numerous (barely) fictional and travel narratives Theresa wrote, it is as if as Theresa's scandal-ridden star fades, so does the conviction and interest with which her story is told.
In the epilogue, Schama characterizes Theresa's life as somewhat heroic, a "harbinger of a new era," inspiring numerous books like Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Wilkie Collins's No Name:
The Yelverton-inspired literature shows the myriad social and legal problems made explicit by the trial; Theresa's biography shows the numerous historical forces reified in one woman's life. The problems with the law that these events illuminated and the literary inspiration they provided were significant, but the weight of the story cannot be boiled down to nuggets of legal or literary impact. Theresa's full, vivid story shows the ebb and flow of historical change, and how one woman navigated these shifts – specifically, how outdated mandates for women's lives linger, and how those ideas are subverted and overcome.
Indeed, the complexity of Theresa's life and her story, the conflicting historical records and the secrecy of the relationship between her and Charles, makes the challenge of this book one of compensating for the limitations in knowing who Theresa really was by making a compelling case for what she represented. And perhaps because the book began as a Master's degree thesis turned creative non-fiction, the balance is not soundly maintained.
In the end, Wild Romance seems torn between its roots as a Master's thesis and a work of narrative history for a more general readership. While Theresa herself seemed to be walking the line between sentimental heroine (idealized romantic happy ending) and sensational heroine (demoralization through a romantic debacle), Schama's book lacks the dramatic tension that makes real lives crackle and shine as narrative history as well as the analytical depth that would make this a substantial piece of academic work. And while I wish anyone interested in or, especially, who writes about, the Victorian period would read Wild Romance for its illustration of an independent, intelligent, and ultimately unconventional 19th century woman, I cannot recommend the book as a robustly successful work of narrative history. C