Wedlock, Wendy Moore’s biography of the woman well nicknamed “the Unhappy Countess,” begins with an account of the cynical subterfuge that ruined her life. Liberated from a stultifying marriage by the death of her unloved aristocratic husband, Mary Eleanor Bowes, titled and rich, committed indiscretions that led to her being venomously lampooned in the London press. In response, Captain Andrew Robinson Stoney presented himself as a chivalrous defender of her honor and fought a duel with the editor of the Morning Post. The duel did not go well for him. Allegedly wounded almost to the point of death, Stoney asked that his few remaining days be sweetened by the object of his devotion accepting his proposal of marriage.
Bowes was romantic, naïve, and a chronically bad judge of character. She agreed to Stoney’s request, and they were married in St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. Her groom, a man she scarcely knew, was carried down the aisle in apparent agony, but in the days following the ceremony he made a remarkable recovery. The laws of the land gave him almost complete control of her very considerable fortune. Bowes was the richest heiress in Britain, perhaps in Europe, her father’s death having left her with between $142 million and $285 million in today’s currency. Bowes realized too late that the duel had been elaborately and cruelly staged.
The subtitle of the British edition of Moore’s book is How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match. Stoney, however, seems to be a serious contender for the title of Britain’s worst husband ever, not merely the worst husband of the Georgian era. The story of the vicious physical and psychological brutality he constantly meted out to Bowes and to other women makes dolorous reading. Moore makes valiant efforts to emphasize the positive in her last pages, claiming that her subject’s campaign to obtain a divorce, waged in the teeth of society’s patriarchal indifference, has helped make conditions of life fairer for later women. One nevertheless closes her book appalled at the hideous cost in human wretchedness Bowes’s hard-won victories entailed.
Bowes might have had a much better life. She was raised the intelligent daughter of a rich man so progressive that he believed in the education of girls, or at least of his own daughter. Growing up in Gibside Hall, near to but undefiled by the coal-bearing land in County Durham and Yorkshire that contributed extensively to her father’s wealth, Bowes was pampered by servants and praised by her father as she acquired knowledge of the French, Spanish, and Italian languages, as well as English composition. George Bowes died when his daughter was eleven, and Mary Eleanor consequently moved to the fashionable West End of London to live with her aunt.
Leading families jockeyed for the young girl’s wealth, and she was soon rejecting offers of marriage from “a great many people of rank.” The eventual winner of her hand and all that went with it was John Lyon, the handsome and aloof ninth earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, then in his late twenties. The two were united on Bowes’s eighteenth birthday. The marriage rendered Bowes a legal nonentity, her existence being subsumed in that of her husband, although she retained her family name and the earl took it as wella condition of George Bowes’s will.
The couple traveled north to Glamis castle, the Scottish seat of the Strathmores where, according to legend if not history, Macbeth murdered Duncan. The marriage was not successful, despite Bowes’s early admiration for Strathmore’s good looks and an encouraging dream or “vision” of him. The earl was interested in rebuilding Glamis, drinking, and horses. His countess was interested in literary pursuits and botany, in both of which she showed promise. The union produced three sons and two daughters, but when her husband died in 1776 Bowes shed few tears.
Stoney too took the name of Bowes as a condition of his marriage and assumption of Mary Eleanor’s estate. Inexplicably convalescent very soon after their wedding ceremony, he hosted a splendid dinner in his wife’s Grosvenor Square house to celebrate the marriage and lost his temper...
(The entire section is 1731 words.)