Reading guide for Wedlock by Wendy Moore

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The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore

by Wendy Moore

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2009, 400 pages
    Mar 2010, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Marnie Colton

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Questions for Discussion

  1. Mary Eleanor Bowes was brought up by her father to be a self-confident, ambitious, and clever girl. Thanks to him she enjoyed an education only normally provided for the sons of aristocratic families and through his wealth she enjoyed a pampered, privileged youth. Was this upbringing and education her downfall? Did it make her a poor judge of character, naively assuming that those who pandered to her needs had genuine affection for her? Or was it her final strength, which gave her the self-belief to escape and fight back against her bullying second husband?
  2. Mary Eleanor married her first husband, the ninth earl, with romantic expectations of a loving, harmonious marriage. She was just 16 when she became engaged and had led a largely closeted life. Steeped in romantic fiction, she was captivated, she said, by his "beauty" and a "vision" in which he appeared to her (page 42). He was older, sexually experienced, and worldly wise, having enjoyed a tempestuous affair with an Italian contessa (page 73). Was their marriage doomed from the start? Whose fault was it that the marriage failed and Mary ultimately sought affection in an affair? Did you feel any sympathy toward the earl? What role did the earl's brother, Thomas Lyon, play in the relationship and was the two brothers' closeness perhaps a factor in the failure of Mary and the earl's marriage?
  3. Mary Eleanor herself confessed she was not fond of her three sons although later in life she tried to patch up her relationship with them. Was her initial distance from them an inevitable result of customs in eighteenth-century wealthy families? The children were wet-nursed, looked after by nursemaids and governesses, then sent away to boarding school. Was it perhaps a flaw in Mary's personality or a result of her own pampered upbringing?
  4. Andrew Robinson Stoney, later Bowes, was undoubtedly one of history's worst husbands and biggest scoundrels—a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, a bully, and a fraud. He seemingly had a relatively normal upbringing for the period in a generally happy family with fairly liberal parents. His own father called him "the most wretched man I ever knew" (page 239), yet the poignant letters from Anne Massingberd (pages 109 and 142) reveal his obvious attraction to women. What could possibly have caused his extraordinary personality traits? How would someone like him operate today? Would he perhaps have been diagnosed with a psychotic personality disorder? And why was he so successful in seducing women? Are men like him still attractive to women today?
  5. Mary Eleanor Bowes was vilified during the divorce cases as an outrageous libertine, an ungrateful wife and a hard-hearted mother. In biographies since her death she has been portrayed as a silly, vain, and naive female who, to a greater or less extent, received her just desserts in her miserable second marriage. Is there any justification in these descriptions or are these just male interpretations of a woman who sought a liberated lifestyle? Did she bring her misfortunes on herself? How would a woman today who followed a similar lifestyle be treated?
  6. Mary Eleanor endured eight years of almost unspeakable abuse and torment at the hands of her second husband. Why did she not confide in anyone for most of this time? Why did she wait so long before leaving him? Was this mainly a result of her reluctance to leave her children, her fear of society's condemnation and the financial deprivations she knew she would incur, or was there any element of hoping her husband would change? When writing her Confessions she seemed hopeful she could convince him of her devotion while mindful of her duty to obey him (page 151). Was she still partly in love with him or was she terrified he would come after her? Why do some women today continue to live with abusive husbands?
  7. Most marriages in the first half of the eighteenth century among wealthy and landed families were arranged by parents as advantageous financial matches. Some were forced on young people. Gradually during the century views changed so that the idea of marrying for love and the ideal of a harmonious companionate marriage—our modern western idea—became the norm. Some commentators blamed this change on the rise of the novel pedaling romantic ideas of love and the promotion of self-expression. Can novels have such a profound impact on society? Did the ideal of a blissfully happy marriage—the novel's perfect ending—set up unrealistic expectations in couples? Was this the reason for rising divorce rates from the eighteenth century onwards and is that necessarily a bad thing?
  8. During the eighteenth century, reading and writing books and other forms of literature became an important vehicle for enabling women to express their views. Women met in literary salons like the famous blue-stocking club—prototypes for today's reading groups—and some women enjoyed success in writing poetry and especially novels. So how do books play a role—then and now—in empowering women? Can literary gatherings or reading groups help in emancipating—or subverting—women?

© Crown Publishing Group, 2009

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Three Rivers. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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