Bound in Union: The Difficulties of Obtaining a Divorce in Victorian England
Divorce Legislation of the Victorian
* 1839: Child Custody Act- Women, if proven innocent of adultery, could obtain custody of their children under seven. (Previously custody had been, without exception, awarded to the father.)
* 1857: Matrimonial Causes Act- established regulations for secular divorce, making civil divorce, rather than divorce by act of Parliament, possible. Also outlined grounds for divorce, which differed for men and women, and secured property rights for divorced women.
* 1870: Married Women’s Property Act- Allowed women to keep their earnings and inheritance along with small sums of money, though all other property fell to the husband.
* 1873: Custody Acts- Women could gain custody of children up to 16 years of age even when adulteresses
* 1882: Married Women’s Property Act-Women could keep all property, real and personal acquired before and after marriage.
* 1884: Matrimonial Causes Act- Allowed wives of adulterers to immediately petition for a divorce rather than waiting the formerly required two years
* 1886: Custody reforms granted mothers automatic custody of children after the death of the father. (Legal Milestones for Women 1832-1928)
Divorce rates during the Victorian Period remained significantly lower than those of the present. Only one in ten women divorced once married due to several contributing circumstances (“Life for Women”). The law, religious doctrine, societal stigma, and the limited financial opportunities available to women all functioned as deterrents to divorce. Yet despite the encumbrances and inequity inherent in Victorian divorce, legislation made significant strides towards more equitable and attainable proceedings. Divorce became, through a century long reform, a plausible outlet for estranged women and poor couples (Finlay, 2).
The main problems, which plagued individuals seeking divorce in the Victorian, concerned constraints based upon sex and wealth. Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, no courts existed to hear divorce cases. The only way to obtain a divorce, applying to Parliament for a private act, had only been achieved by four women in English history (Feinberg). This parliamentary method proved far to costly for women and the poor, remaining the privilege of the male landed gentry and aristocracy. Here, a circumstance arose where ideal starkly contrasted with reality in terms of how efficacious a manner the procedures of divorce functioned in. Believed universally applicable, this method of administering the legalities of divorce proved not only narrow and inequitable, but also inefficient as it occupied far too much of Parliament’s time. The House of Lords, who received petitions for divorce, felt the ever compounding depletion of its resouces, and this factor served as yet another motivating force behind the soon to arise reform legislation against such...