Divorce is Politics By Other Means

Fun Magazine Illustration
Detail. Fun. No. 252. March 12, 1870. 29 x 23 cm.

In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce possible for females in extreme cases. This was followed, in 1870, by the Married Woman's Property Act, which extended some rights to females to own property after marriage.

These laws had their greatest implications for the aristocracy and upper-middle class. However, the social stigma of divorce for females remained a potent antidote such poisonous thoughts. The two cases here were both initiated by husbands.

For the middle and lower classes, divorce cases were popular literature available through newspapers and pamphlets. Such public scrutiny was worrisome to Queen Victoria because knowledge of sexual scandal would undermine public morals and respect for the governing class.

This centerfold illlustration from Fun assembles suffragettes petitioning for equitable laws and fascinated onlookers of divorce and other sexual scandal, such as that generated by Lady Byron Vindicated, into an ironic tableau.

The centerfold is titled "Ladies! Ladies!" and subtitled "The Mystery of Modern Modesty."

Eighteen-seventy was notable for those who followed the divorce scandals in illustrated newspapers and fast literature because of the Mordaunt divorce case.

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Mordaunt Divorce Case News
The Mordaunt Divorce Case

Illustrated Police News, No. 316. March 5, 1870. 37 x 23 cm.

Lord Mordaunt sued his wife for divorce in 1870 after Lady Mordaunt gave birth to a child blinded by maternal venereal disease. In her grief and guilt, Lady Mordaunt confessed to affairs with a variety of men, including Edward VII, heir to the British throne.

Lady Mordaunt's grief and guilt devolved into insanity, or, as was argued in the papers, evolved from fakery as Lady Mordaunt became an outcast in her family and their wider society. Perhaps she had developed syphilitic dementia. In any case, Lady Mordaunt was committed to an insane asylum where she lived until she died.

The prospect of the heir to the throne subject to questioning in court no doubt enriched many publishers since entire court cases were printed and purchased as reading material. Lady Mordaunt's "madwoman in the attic" provided abundant cause for discussion.

The Mordaunt divorce scandal did not end Edward's royal prospects, nor his acquisition of mistresses. Alexandra, his wife, eventually began to invite the paramours to visit.

Another famous divorce scandal had a different political outcome.

The Crawford Divorce Case
Illustrations from Crawford Divorce Case
(Verbatim Report)

F. Henning, 1886

The Crawford Divorce Case
Sir Charles Dilke was a member of the liberal party. Gladstone had named him as successor to the party leadership, and thus positioned him to be Prime Minister.

However, when Dilke became a correspondent in the Crawford divorce case, his political career was ruined. Virginia Crawford named Dilke in charges against her for adultery. Like Lady Mordaunt, Virginia Crawford had contracted syphilis before her husband sued for divorce.

In a first trial, in which Dilke refused to testify, Virginia was found to have committed adultery with Dilke, but not he with her.

This led to a second trial in which Dilke sought to clear his name. In the second trial, Virginia was found guilty of adultery with her lover, Captain Henry Forster, while Crawford was found guilty of adultery with Virginia's mother (who was also the mother of his sister-in-law.)

The Crawford Divorce Case
Both Crawford and Dilke were liberals. Crawford also worked for suffragette causes and later worked at the Pall Mall Gazette for W.T. Stead. Stead, in turn, worked with Josephine Butler to expose child slavery and prostitution.

After the Crawford divorce, Dilke lost his bid for office and thus leadership of the liberal party. Immediately following, the liberal party coalition splintered. Dilke spent the rest of his life attempting to prove his innocence. At his insistence, a committee investigated the case for over a decade.

The committee concluded that Mrs. Crawford had perjured herself.

Virginia Crawford converted to Catholicism and worked to improve the conditions of Britain's poor. She lived through both World Wars and was among the first in Britain to warn of the dangers of Mussolini's fascism.

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