Wendy Moore explains how she came to write Wedlock, the true story of the disastrous marriage and remarkable divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore
How did you come to write Wedlock?
Wedlock is my second book and also my second relating the life of an eighteenth-century personality. After writing my first book, The Knife Man, about the eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter, I was scouting around for another idea. I was still drawn to the colorful world of medical history and spent many weeks pottering around dusty medical archives when suddenly Mary Eleanor Bowes burst into my life.
I had had a brief encounter with Mary Eleanor Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore, in writing my first book. She was a friend of John Hunter and donated to him the skin of a giraffe that had been brought back from an expedition she had sponsored to southern Africa. I knew no more about her until the curator of the Hunterian Museum in London, where John Hunter's human and animal body parts are exhibited, mentioned that the countess had a fascinating story of her own. Not expecting much, I ordered a few booksaccounts of the divorce case and the kidnapping trials published at the timewhen I next visited the British Library. I could scarcely believe what I read. The shocking story of an accomplished heiress who was tricked into marrying an Irish scoundrel by a fake duel, her wretched married life, her audacious escape and landmark legal battles, andmost staggering of allher abduction by her estranged husband from a busy London street, seemed like the stuff of fiction. I was hooked. Immediately I dropped the other ideas I had been exploring and began a detective trail exploring Mary Eleanor Bowes's life and times.
For the next two years I devoted myself to researching and writing Mary Eleanor's story, visiting her childhood home of Gibside in northeast England, where her house is still in ruins, and the romantic Glamis Castle (pronounced 'glarms') belonging to her first husband in Scotland, where the late Queen Mother was brought up, as well as trawling through countless boxes of letters, diaries, bills, and even schoolbooks in various archives. It has been an enthralling journey.
What made you want to write a book about the Countess of Strathmore?
Above all, it was the action-packed story that initially inspired me to write about Mary Eleanor. I am a journalist by training and I know a good yarn when I hear one. But as I got deeper into my research I became fascinated by the themes that the story illuminatedhow our ideas about marriage have changed, why divorce has risen from the eighteenth century onwards, arguments about child custody and women's rightsall issues that are just as topical today. I find the eighteenth century compelling for this contradiction: so many of the customs, fashions, and characters seem bizarre and eccentric to us today and yet so many of the concernscelebrity, relationships, media obsessionare exactly the same.
What original sources did you use in the research?
I was extremely lucky to find a rich treasure trove of material in archives, particularly at Glamis Castle. I made seven trips to Scotland, where I plowed through dozens of boxes of neatly tied bundles of letters, accounts, and legal documents that had to be transported for me from Glamis Castle (where they are kept in a cold and inhospitable turret) to Dundee University. Reading Mary's letters and the replies to her from her lawyers, her family, her tenants, and her friends helped me piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her marriage and divorce. In earlier biographiesall by male authorsshe had been depicted as vain, selfish, and gullible and it was reading her descriptions of her ordeal in her own words that brought to life the intelligent, compassionate, and much-wronged woman to whom I felt a strong connection. Some of the itemsparticularly the little bills for shoes, clothes, and medical treatment for the five Strathmore childrenwere very poignant. Often it is a small specific detaillike the bill which mentioned lettuce for the young tenth earl's tortoisethat can bring out the human element in a story.
Were there any problems in writing the book?
One of the difficulties was trying to understand what attracted peoplewomen and mento Andrew Robinson Stoney when obviously he was such a villain. How could they be so easily fooled? It helped to read the desperate letters of Anne Massingberd, whom he seduced between his two marriages, that plainly revealed that women were totally besotted with him. Evidently, he possessed some strong magnetism that women found hard to resist. It was also challenging to unravel the complexities of the eighteenth-century legal world and understand the botany of southern Africa, but I was lucky to find experts in both fields who helped me.
Were you surprised to discover the limits on women's freedom and rights?
My last book centred very much on the men's world of eighteenth-century medicine and science. Researching Wedlock brought home to me that the eighteenth century in general was indeed a man's world. I hadn't realized the extent to which girls and women were effectively ruled by their fathers and then their husbands. Not only were women's lives generally governed by men, they really had no legal status at all, so their property, their income, and even their children all belonged to men. The stories of babies and young children being taken from their mothers and handed over to their fathers when couples divorcedoften never seeing their mothers againwere harrowing to read, especially as a mother myself. What was perhaps more surprising, though, was how many women spoke out against their lack of rights and how many became celebrated, respected, and powerful figures despite the legal and societal restraints. I have huge admiration for women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Mary Eleanor Bowes, who refused to accept the status quo and stood up for their principles.
What was life like for an intelligent, highly educated wealthy woman in mid-eighteenth-century Britain?
Highly frustrating, I imagine. The few women like Mary Eleanor, who were sufficiently privileged to enjoy a full and rounded education, could hold their own in salon conversations about science and the arts. But they were barred from any serious involvement in either the scientific or arts worlds, unable to join organizations like the all-male Royal Society, and disparaged if they tried to compete on equal terms in writing poetry or books. Several women, like Hannah More, Elizabeth Carter, and Mary Wortley Montagu, did earn respected reputations for their learning but they were also viewed as oddities and unfeminine. As the Bishop of London said: "Nothing, I think, is more disagreeable than learning in a female." Having said that, Mary Eleanor would probably have been relatively happy had she been allowed the freedom at least to pursue her passion for botany and her love of writing; both were stifled by her successive husbands.
© Crown Publishing Group, 2009
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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