Non-Physical cruelty and the divorce court in England 1857-1914: expectations and experiences of marriage
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date19/05/2024
This thesis examines a period of over 50 years – from 1857, when the Divorce Court was established, until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when there was significant disruption to marital life and gender relations – to consider understandings and experiences of cruelty within the context of the requirements of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act. The thesis focuses on divorce petitions to investigate women’s intimate experiences and understandings of non-physical ‘cruelty’ in marriage. It moves beyond the acts of physical violence typically discussed in existing historical scholarship on domestic violence, and instead focuses on acts of non-physical cruelty that were committed by husbands. It also examines wives’ responses and reactions to the experience of non-physical cruelty, as well as the longer-term consequences of pursuing divorce through the courts. The grievances brought before the Divorce Court can be understood as expressions of the gendered expectations wives held concerning their proper treatment within the household. The Divorce Court offers a unique insight into marital life because the wife needed to submit a petition that provided examples of her husband’s actions that would, hopefully, demonstrate that the threshold of legal cruelty had been met. Analysis of a large dataset of Divorce Court petitions enables assessment of the range and extent of non-physical forms of abuse in marriage in the broader context of changing legal views on what constituted ‘cruelty’ within the Victorian and Edwardian period. In examining the women who filed a Divorce Court petition, and the outcome of the petition, this thesis shows how examples of various forms of non-physical cruelty were important in strengthening the case, often by helping to prove or bolster the cruelty charge. The thesis also uses other primary source material, including newspaper articles and the census (alongside the petitions themselves), to analyse the socio-economic status of wives who petitioned for divorce. Although the Divorce Court remained expensive to use after 1857, and was thus accessed largely by those of the upper and middle classes, a handful of cases studied in this thesis related to working-class marriages. The study, thus, contributes to the fields of social history and gender history through its examination of the perspectives of women across the social spectrum.
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