"Wedlock is a padlock/When you're married to a no-good man," sang R&B chanteuse Laura Lee in 1972. That lyric would make an ideal epigram for this biography of Mary Eleanor Bowes, a bright and flirtatious aristocrat whose married life should have encompassed galas, theatrical outings, and pursuit of the botanical studies she adored. Instead, Mary inadvertently became a figurehead for women's rights in late 18th-century England when she successfully obtained a divorce from her tyrannical husband: no easy feat in an era that condoned beating wives to keep them in line and denied them all material possessions.
Although the first Gothic novels didn't appear until the dawn of the 19th century, Mary's adventures, roughly spanning the 1760s-1780s, could easily pass for the sort of darkly tantalizing fiction that readers sought in Frankenstein
and The Monk
Beyond the Book
Women and Botany
Before her husband forbade her from pursuing any hobbies or interests, Mary Eleanor Bowes devoted considerable time to studying botany and overseeing the gardens at her family estates. She even became the patron of Scottish naturalist William Paterson, funding his expedition to South Africa, from where he brought native plant specimens as well as the first giraffe remains ever seen in England. Unfortunately for Paterson, his scientific accomplishments were obscured by the debt that he found himself in when Stoney/Bowes cut off the funds that Mary had promised; the fortune hunter thus added "impeding scientific progress" to his list of iniquities.
In a strange parallel, another 18th century British botanical enthusiast, Mary Delany (1700-1788)...