Mr. Dale and the Divorcée by Sophie Barnes


Although Divorce was extremely rare during the Regency period, it wasn’t unheard of. However, there were different levels of divorce depending on how far one was willing to go and what one could afford. For the majority, obtaining a divortium a mensa et thoro (separation from bed and board) from the ecclesiastical court might have been enough. This process ended the husband’s financial obligation toward his wife and permitted the couple to live apart, though neither was allowed to remarry.

In order for such a thing to be possible, two additional steps had to be taken. First, the husband had to win a criminal conversation suit (also known as a crim. con) in which the wife was accused of adultery and charges were brought against her lover in civil court. Since a wife was considered her husband’s property, she was not permitted to testify on her own behalf and the case itself was tried as a form of trespass or property damage.

The final step in severing all ties with his wife, was for the husband to bring a Private Act (or Bill) of Divorcement before Parliament, resulting in a divorce a vinculo matrimonii (divorce from the chains of marriage), which allowed both parties to remarry.

“This process cost hundreds to thousands of pounds and took months to years. Once proven, a vinculo matrimonii could make children illegitimate, and husbands could end mothers' custody of and access to children. Husbands could keep their ex-wives' money, just doling out alimony. From 1800-1857 Parliament granted 200 such divorces, four of which women had instigated.” - The Law and the Lady: Consent and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature by Heather Lea Nelson, Purdue University.

Interestingly, Jane Austen herself was acquainted with a divorcé. In 1807 she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, gently criticizing a certain Sir Edward James Foote for only wanting to choose the plainest name for the child his wife, Mary, had recently given birth to. Mary Foote (née Patton) was Edward’s second wife following his divorce from Nina Herries.