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

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Three Rivers Press, 2010 - Biography & Autobiography - 386 pages
8 Reviews
With the death of her fabulously wealthy coal magnate father when she was just eleven, Mary Eleanor Bowes became the richest heiress in Britain. An ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II, Mary grew to be a highly educated young woman, winning acclaim as a playwright and botanist. Courted by a bevy of eager suitors, at eighteen she married the handsome but aloof ninth Earl of Strathmore in a celebrated, if ultimately troubled, match that forged the Bowes Lyon name. Yet she stumbled headlong into scandal when, following her husband’s early death, a charming young army hero flattered his way into the merry widow’s bed.

Captain Andrew Robinson Stoney insisted on defending her honor in a duel, and Mary was convinced she had found true love. Judged by doctors to have been mortally wounded in the melee, Stoney persuaded Mary to grant his dying wish; four days later they were married.

Sadly, the “captain” was not what he seemed. Staging a sudden and remarkable recovery, Stoney was revealed as a debt-ridden lieutenant, a fraudster, and a bully. Immediately taking control of Mary’s vast fortune, he squandered her wealth and embarked on a campaign of appalling violence and cruelty against his new bride. Finally, fearing for her life, Mary masterminded an audacious escape and challenged social conventions of the day by launching a suit for divorce. The English public was horrified–and enthralled. But Mary’s troubles were far from over . . .

Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was inspired by Stoney’s villainy to write The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which Stanley Kubrick turned into an Oscar-winning film. Based on exhaustive archival research, Wedlock is a thrilling and cinematic true story, ripped from the headlines of eighteenth-century England.

From the Hardcover edition.

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User Review  - WWDG - LibraryThing

Picked this book to take on holiday after seeing the review on TV Book Club. Initially I was put off as the cover makes it look like a 'bodice ripper' fiction book (not something i would go anywhere ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - coolmama - LibraryThing

Falls under the "truth is stranger than fiction" genre. Wendy has produced a very readable story out of potentially complicated material - and this was a joy to read. Mary Eleanor Bowes, Dowager ... Read full review



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About the author (2010)

London, January 13, 1777

Settling down to read his newspaper by the candlelight illuminating the dining room of the Adelphi Tavern, John Hull anticipated a quiet evening. Having opened five years earlier, as an integral part of the vast Adelphi development designed by the Adam brothers on the north bank of the Thames, the Adelphi Tavern and Coffee House had established a reputation for its fine dinners and genteel company. Many an office worker like Hull, a clerk at the government’s Salt Office, sought refuge from the clamor of the nearby Strand in the tavern’s upper- floor dining room with its elegant ceiling panels depicting Pan and Bacchus in pastel shades. On a Monday evening in January, with the day’s work behind him, Hull could expect to read his paper undisturbed.

At first, when he heard the two loud bangs, at about 7 p.m., Hull assumed they were caused by a door slamming downstairs. A few minutes later, there was no mistaking the sound of clashing swords. Throwing aside his newspaper, Hull ran down the stairs and tried to open the door to the ground- floor parlor. Finding it locked, and growing increasingly alarmed at the violent clatter from within, he shouted for waiters to help him force the door. Finally bursting into the unlit room, Hull could dimly make out two figures fencing furiously in the dark. Reckless as to his own safety, the clerk grabbed the sword arm of the nearest man, thrust himself between the two duelists, and insisted that they lay down their swords. Even so it was several more minutes of struggle before he could persuade the first man to yield his weapon.

It was not a moment too soon. The man who reluctantly surrendered his sword now fell swooning to the floor, and in the light of candles brought by servants, a large blood stain could be seen seeping across his waistcoat. A cursory examination convinced Hull that the man was gravely injured. “I think there were three wounds in his right breast, and one upon his sword arm,” he would later attest. The second duelist, although less seriously wounded, was bleeding from a gash to his thigh. With no time to be lost, servants were dispatched into the cold night air to summon medical aid. They returned with a physician named John Scott, who ran a dispensary from his house nearby, and a surgeon, one Jessť Foot, who lived in a neighboring street. Both concurred with Hull’s amateur opinion, agreeing that the collapsed man had suffered a serious stab wound when his opponent’s sword had run through his chest from right to left–presumably on account of the fencers’ standing sideways–as well as a smaller cut to his abdomen and a scratch on his sword arm.

Disheveled and deathly pale, his shirt and waistcoat opened to bare his chest, the patient sprawled in a chair as the medical men tried to revive him with smelling salts, water, and wine and to staunch the bleeding by applying a poultice. What ever benefit the pair may have bestowed by this eminently sensible first aid was almost certainly reversed when they cut open a vein in their patient’s arm to let blood, the customary treatment for almost every ailment. Unsurprisingly, given the weakening effect of this further loss of blood, no sooner had the swordsman revived than he fainted twice more. It was with some justification, therefore, that the two medics pronounced their patient’s injuries might well prove fatal. The discovery of two discarded pistols, still warm from having been fired, suggested that the outcome could easily have been even more decisive. With his life declared to be hanging by a thread, the fading duelist now urged his erstwhile adversary to flee the tavern–taking pains to insist that he had acquitted himself honorably–and even offered his own carriage for the getaway.

This was sound advice, for duels had been repeatedly banned by law since the custom had been imported from continental Europe to Britain in the early seventeenth century. Anyone participating in such a trial of combat risked being charged with murder, and subsequently hanged, should the opponent die, while those who took the role of seconds, whose job it was to ensure fair play, could be charged as accomplices to murder. Yet such legal deterrents had done little to discourage reckless gallants bent on settling disputes of honor. Far from withering under threat of prosecution, dueling had not only endured but flourished spectacularly in the eighteenth century. During the reign of George III, from 1760 to 1820, no fewer than 172 duels would be fought, leaving sixty- nine dead and ninety- six wounded. The gradual replacement of swords by pistols in the later eighteenth century inevitably put the participants at greater risk of fatal injury. John Wilkes, the radical politician, survived a duel in 1763 only because his opponent’s bullet was deflected by a coat button. As the fashion for settling scores by combat grew, so too the perverse rules of etiquette surrounding dueling became more convoluted and rule books, such as the “Twenty- six Commandments,” published in Ireland in 1777, were produced in an attempt to guide combatants through the ritualistic maze.

Yet despite the legal prohibition, the deadly game was widely tolerated. During George III’s long reign, only eigh teen cases were ever brought to trial; just seven participants were found guilty of manslaughter and three of murder, and only two suffered execution. This lax approach by authority was scarcely surprising, given that duels were fought primarily by the titled, the rich, and the powerful, including two prime ministers–William Petty Shelburne and William Pitt the Younger–and a leader of the opposition, Charles James Fox. Public opinion largely condoned the practice, which was frequently glorified in romantic fiction, too.

Yet despite the very real risk that he might swing on the gallows on account of the condition of his opponent, the second duelist in the Adelphi Tavern that night declined the offer of escape. Certainly, the wound to his thigh meant that he was in little shape to run. But it was also the case that he was too well known to hide for long.

As the parlor filled with friends and onlookers, including the two seconds belatedly arriving on the scene, many recognized the fashionably attired figure of the apparent victor of the contest as the Reverend Henry Bate. Although attempted murder was hardly compatible with his vows to the church, the 31- year- old parson had already established something of a reputation for bravado. Educated at Oxford, although he left without taking a degree, Bate had initially joined the army, where he acquired valuable skills in combat. But he promptly swapped his military uniform for a clerical gown when his father died, and the young Bate succeeded to his position as rector of the country parish of North Fambridge in Essex, in the south of En gland. Before long he had added the curacy of Hendon, a sleepy hamlet north of London, to his ecclesiastical duties. Comfortably well- off but socially ambitious, Bate’s impeccably groomed figure was a more familiar sight in the coffee- houses and theatres of London than in the pulpits of his village churches. Indeed, it was his literary, rather than his religious, works for which Bate was famed.

Friendly with the capital’s theatrical community, Bate had written several farces and comic operas that had met with moderate acclaim, but he employed his pen to much greater effect as editor of the Morning Post. Set up in 1772 as a rival to the Morning Chronicle, the Post had developed a pioneering combative style that contrasted sharply with the dull and pompous approach of its competitors. Since his appointment as editor two years previously, Bate had consolidated his newspaper’s reputation for fearlessly exposing scandal in public and private life, boosting circulation as a result. While taking full advantage of the recent hard- won freedom for journalists to report debates in Parliament, the Post took equal liberties in revealing details of the intrigues and excesses of Georgian society’s rich and famous, the so- called bon ton. Although strategically placed dashes supposedly obscured the names of the miscreants, the identities of well- known celebrities of their day, such as “Lord D–re” and “Lady J–sey,” were easily guessed by their friends and enemies over the breakfast table.

At a time when the importance of the press in a constitutional democracy was becoming increasingly recognized–as was its potential for abusing that freedom–Bate stood out as the most notorious editor of all. Flamboyant and domineering–some would say bullying– Bate had recently sounded the death knell of a copycat rival of the Post in characteristic style, by leading a noisy pro cession of drummers and trumpeters marching along Piccadilly. Horace Walpole, the remorseless gossip, was appalled at the scene that he watched from his window and described to a friend: “A solemn and expensive masquerade exhibited by a clergyman in defence of daily scandal against women of the first rank, in the midst of a civil war!” he blustered. Samuel Johnson, as a fellow hack, at least gave Bate credit for his “courage” as a journalist, if not for his merit. This was something of a backhanded compliment, however, since as Johnson explained: “We have more respect for a man who robs boldly on the highway, than for a fellow who jumps out of a ditch, and knocks you down behind your back.”

Acclaimed then, if not universally admired, as a vigorous defender of pres

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