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Divorce and the Law

  • Anya Taylor

Abstract

The English law forbidding divorce prevented Coleridge from achieving the completion to which the songs of women summoned him. Unique in Protestant Europe, this English law was a far more oppressive element in Romantic culture than critics have yet observed. It cast a pall over many unhappily married men and women, demanded the expense of two establishments for separated couples, and gave unusual power to husbands over their wives. At this time of Romantic rebellion against the forces that constricted individual liberty, under the very eyes of reformers, the lives of women worsened, and the shouts of men swelled, “Hear, Hear!” In 1800 the House of Lords held a debate lasting two months, March 21 to May 19, to establish increasingly harsh punishments for aristocratic wives who violated their marriage vows.1 Just a few months after falling in love with a woman not his wife, Coleridge attended the first two weeks of these debates. This chapter shows what the debates revealed about lordly British attitudes toward women, how Coleridge responded in print to these legal realities in the midst of his own emotional turmoil, and how these laws prevented Coleridge and Sara Hutchinson from legalizing their love for each other. It was not his choice to “refuse to divorce his wife,” as even his admirers have suggested, but the law of the land.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Unmarried Woman Forced Marriage Parliamentary Debate Legal Reality 
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Notes

  1. 4.
    Molly Lefebure, The Bondage of Love: A Life of Mrs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York: Norton, 1986), pp. 52–53, believes that they were exultantly happy.Google Scholar
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    This unique injunction was, ironically, instituted by Henry VIII, who in fact “never did obtain a divorce.” For a summary of the stages of court appearances in this complex process, see Allen Horstman, “The Origins,” Victorian Divorce (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985), pp. 1–5.Google Scholar
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© Anya Taylor 2005

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  • Anya Taylor

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