Marriage breakdown in the public eye: then and now

Breaking up relationships in the glare of publicity is part of celebrity life, and the couples involved are applauded or attacked for their level of dignity, discretion, and anger. Social media plays a large role in the process, with public announcements of break-ups in blogs and on Facebook, and people choosing to inform their partner of their decision to end their relationship in texts and tweets. We needn’t lament the lack of sensitivity of modern life, however, since people have long used new technology to air their marital grievances and finalise their union. And I’m not talking about Phil Collins and his divorce fax message.

newcastle-courantIn the eighteenth century married couples used the new medium of newspaper advertisements to announce and resolve marital problems. In this post I introduce Jane and Frances Gomeldon who used the Newcastle press in 1740 to air their marital and personal grievances.

An advertisement in the Newcastle Journal , 5 July 1740, began proceedings. Placed on page 3, the anonymous advertiser announced that a ‘Lady’ had recently been instigated by ‘evil advisers’ and seduced to leave her husband’s house in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The advert was clearly intended for the lady’s eyes, since it told her that if she returned home within ten days she would be received with ‘utmost Tenderness’ and affection. And it she didn’t? Then

‘he will be obliged, to publish her Name, together with the Names and Practices of her Seducers; all of which he hath at length obtained a full Discovery of, and is determined, by all legal Means, to punish unless she returns’.

This advert was not particularly unusual and historians have studied the way that individuals and groups with authority often used adverts to find those who did not live up to their duties and obligations. Masters tried to locate runaway apprentices (and in America slaves. Local administrators of the Poor Laws searched for deserting husbands. Husbands also sought out their wives who left them (described as eloping) through the same format of advertisements, which often described the circumstances and the runaways’ appearance. As the un-named advertiser inferred, law was on his side for husbands could sue people who ‘harboured’ or ‘entertained’ their wives, namely gave them a place to stay, which is effectively what this husband threatened.

This very public marital conflict soon broke away from the norm however when the wife retaliated in an advert published on 12 July in the Newcastle Courant. Her intent ‘in justification of herself’ was to set out the truth. She had never left her husband with a seducer; indeed she had lived in utmost love with him from their wedding until his actions led her to believe that neither her fortune nor her life was secure. Thus, she declared, she had left simply to preserve her life and her property and for no other cause. She quickly shrugged off the label of victim. She told readers that if her husband had used her with tenderness and affection at home, she would not have left it. If he was going to talk about prosecutions then he should mention that he had already begun a restitution of marital rites at Durham Consistory Court.

This husband was clearly taking a belt-and-braces attack by combining his public advertisement with a restitution suit, which was a way for him to legally demand his wife’s return. She also added weight to her accusations by alleging that he had begun another suit concerning her fortune which she ‘hath good Reason to believe, he desires more than her Person’. Here was the real trigger of the problems. Her mother had bequeathed her money and property using separate estate so that her husband was excluded from ‘intermeddling’ with it. This was essential because men gained all their wives’ moveable goods at marriage and the profits from their land. The advertiser’s mother had circumvented this by a legal device which kept the money for the sole and separate maintenance of her daughter. Next the wife defended her chastity by rebutting the claims of an alleged ‘seducer’ and claimed that her maid had provided him with this information; the same maid who was now living with her husband. She remained anonymous in the advert but ended by telling her husband that she did not regard his threats to publish her name. Just to ensure her message was received, the same advert was repeated on 19 July in the same newspaper title.

Somewhat ironically, 19 July was the same day that the husband published a further advertisement in the Newcastle Journal. He said he had received no response to his previous advert except the advert in the Courant, which charged him with much misbehaviour, all of which was without foundation in truth. He suspected the accusations were due to her evil influencers. He asked her to prove one instance of any kind of bad behaviour and declared that he had demanded the same from her attorney. Clearly the couple were lawyered up by this stage. In fact, he had made a bargain, he said; if she could prove one instance of his ill-usage, she could act and do as she pleased. Nothing had come of this, so he had turned to the spiritual court at Durham for the recovery of her person (and no other suit). He entreated her again to return to his kind reception, or consider the ill-consequences. Then, throwing off his anonymity he signed the advert: Francis Gomeldon.

This spurred his wife to respond in her newspaper of choice, the Newcastle Courant on 26 July. In it, she pitied him his vast desire ‘to appeal and discover himself to the Publick’ and ‘solemnly affirm[s]’ that her accusations were true. She reiterated his ill-treatment and her efforts to keep this secret and noted that the proof would be presented to the ecclesiastical court when she defended herself against his restitution suit. Indeed, a wife typically did respond to a husband’s use of this suit to force her to return by citing his cruelty. Jane added a little piquancy to the tale by warning her husband that he gave no great encouragement to an injured wife by living with the young maid who left her service and providing her with a chaise and horse. She ended by calling him a liar for denying the existence of another lawsuit since he had published a monition in her name in All Saints Church for all her mother’s kin to show why her estate should not be committed to her. This was, she stated, a contrivance for him to get her fortune – which she intended to prevent.

Jane’s advert was repeated the following week in the Courant and Francis replied in the Journal on 2 August. He pointed out that Jane had still not proved her accusations and now added ‘groundless reflection upon the character of the young woman so lately her companion’. He despaired that she was still obstinately stopping her ears against the sincere persuasions of an ‘affectionate and faithful Friend and Husband’. He ended this final advert in the series:

‘And as from hence I cannot but despair of winning her over to me again, I will trouble her no further in this Way’.

All this challenges one of the controversial theories about family life is that it became more private in the eighteenth century. There is evidence that points this way. Polite couples turned to marriages by licence to avoid parading their activities in front of the local congregation by declaring the banns before their wedding. Newly built houses incorporated corridors to keep chambers separate and stop household members wandering from one room to the next as they went about their business. Yet, paradoxically, just as the middling and upper ranks were trying to keep themselves to themselves, the public sphere opened up in the form of print culture and marriage and family life was one of the topics opened up to close scrutiny. This was not restricted to fiction and conduct literature for the press also played a part. Indeed, the intimate rubbed shoulders with politics, foreign affairs and local business marketing in eighteenth-century metropolitan and provincial newspapers, just as they do in social media today.

Finally, as you may not be surprised to hear, Francis did not keep his promise to trouble his wife no further and I’ll talk a little more about the next stage of their marital breakdown in a future blog post.

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