Nicola here. Today I am delighted to welcome Christine Wells to the Word Wenches. Christine is a former corporate lawyer turned award-winning author of Regency historical romance and her beautifully written and emotionally poignant books have always been on my auto-buy list. You may imagine my excitement when I discovered that Christine was taking her writing in a new direction with The Wife's Tale, a sweeping novel set in the eighteenth century and the present. No spoilers here as I want everyone to discover and enjoy this fabulous book for themselves but I will say that The Wife's Tale is a book whose characters and their story stayed with me a long time after reading. I even dreamed about it! Now it's over to Christine to talk about the fascinating history of the Criminal Conversation trial, a theme that lies at the heart of The Wife's Tale.
Thank you very much to Nicola and the wonderful Word Wenches for having me here today. I’ve always been a fan of this blog (not to mention the novels of its authors!) and I’m thrilled to return today to share some background from my new novel, THE WIFE’S TALE.
Those of you who are devotees of Georgette Heyer might recall fleeting references to the latest scandalous “crim. con.” news in some of her books. Heyer never goes into detail about these court cases but as a former lawyer myself, I found the cause of action intriguing.
When embarking on a slightly new direction with my historical fiction, I wanted to marry my professional experience as a solicitor and love of legal history with my passion for the history of English country houses. I suddenly recalled the action of criminal conversation and realised it would be a perfect springboard for a story full of intrigue and scandal about English aristocrats in the late eighteenth century.
To my surprise and delight, I discovered that reports of criminal conversation trials were not only readily available but fascinating to read. It was no wonder that society ladies and gentlemen would pore over them and discuss them in detail, much as some people gossip about celebrity scandals today.
In a criminal conversation prosecution, the husband sues his wife’s lover for having sexual intercourse with her. The quasi-criminal cause of action originates in the tort of trespass, the same kind of action you would have these days at common law if someone wilfully damaged your car. A man’s wife was his chattel so he was entitled to monetary compensation if another man “with force and arms, made an assault… [on her] and then and there debauched, deflowered, lay with, and carnally knew her”, in the words of the writ itself.
Unsurprisingly, wives did not have a reciprocal cause of action against their husband’s mistresses. The wife was her husband’s chattel, so he could not also be hers.
The wife was unrepresented and had no voice in the prosecution at all. Either party could say whatever they liked about her through their representatives and witnesses, and the latter were often bribed or intimidated into giving false testimony. More often that not, the wife was ruined financially and socially by such an action and yet she had no recourse and no opportunity to tell her side of the story.
The amount of damages the plaintiff husband could win climbed to astronomical heights in the late eighteenth century, spurred partly by the Lord Chief Justice of the time, Lord Kenyon, who believed adultery symbolised the breakdown of modern society, an unnatural disturbance in the order of things tantamount to treason. In fact, he believed adultery should be punishable by imprisonment but the law did not allow him to go that far. Instead, he encouraged juries to award damages that might indeed land the defendant in debtors’ prison if he couldn’t pay.
Once the act itself was proven to have occurred, damages were awarded after consideration of several factors. The wife’s unimpeached virtue at the time of the defendant’s seduction was a key factor, as was the happiness of the marriage. Her beauty and accomplishments were worth a few bonus points, as well.
However, if it could be shown, as it was in Seymour, Lady Worsley’s case (pictured), that the wife was a serial adulterer before the defendant lover came along, her virtue was not worth much, and therefore the husband was not entitled to a large sum in damages. If he had turned a blind eye to her amours or encouraged them, he would receive nominal damages, but there had to be clear evidence of this behaviour, corroborated by third party witnesses. Never was the husband’s own fidelity called into question or weighed in the balance—again, this doesn’t surprise.
Another factor in deciding damages was the relationship between the two men. If they were friends, so much the worse for the defendant. In the case of brothers, as in the Denyss trial, worse still.
Even royal princes and prime ministers were not above being sued for criminal conversation. In 1769, Lord Grosvenor sued the king’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland, for sleeping with his wife and recovered £10,000. Later, in May 1836, Caroline Norton’s husband sued the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne for £10,000 in an action that might have brought down the government if he’d won—and very nearly did in any case. A verdict of not guilty was entered and Lord Melbourne walked away virtually unscathed, still holding office. Not so Caroline, of course. You can read more about this fascinating woman in the excellent “The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton” by Diane Atkinson.
The wives in these criminal conversation cases, particularly Lady Worsley and Caroline Norton (pictured) inspired the character Delany, Lady Nash in THE WIFE’S TALE. In fact, although Delany’s story might seem far-fetched or fantastical, everything that happened to her in THE WIFE’S TALE is based on real events.
Reading about these women and the injustice and hardship they underwent made me so angry, I had to write about a strong, intelligent woman who was the subject of such a trial but won in the end–albeit with great sacrifice and struggle along the way.
Blurb from The Wife's Tale:
With her marriage on the rocks, workaholic lawyer Liz Jones agrees to visit Seagrove, a stately home on the Isle of Wight, while she quietly investigates its provenance on behalf of a client. When she discovers Seagrove is linked to a notorious eighteenth-century court case, Liz becomes fascinated – not only by the house and its history, but also by its current owners. In the winter of 1789, the infamous Delany Nash scandalised London when details of her alleged affair with her husband's brother were aired in a public courtroom. Yet her journals reveal an extraordinary woman's tale of passion, betrayal and heartbreak. Captivated by Delany's story, Liz delves into her research but the more she uncovers, the more she risks jeopardising the future of everyone at Seagrove. For there are dark secrets that surround the house, and when the truth emerges the repercussions will echo down through the centuries.
I hope you enjoy Delany’s story in THE WIFE’S TALE. It is out now in Australia and New Zealand, but international readers can purchase a copy through the Book Depository. It is also available from Audible as a free download in the UK and the US.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Christine, and I hope that as many readers as possible have the chance to discover this amazing, poignant and intriguing book.Christine is giving away a copy of The Wife's Tale to one lucky commenter and her is her excellent question:
In some states in the U.S.A. the criminal conversation action still exists, and is available to wives as well as husbands. If you were evaluating a husband’s worth, what factors would you take into account? Personally, I’d put his willingness to do housework near the top of the list!