A journalist pursues an abandoned Victorian wife who turned her plight into a surprising career as a writer and world traveler.
Schama stumbled on the scandalous story of Theresa Longworth Yelverton and her bigamist husband in a footnote about the origins of the Wilkie Collins novel Man and Wife. The several trials in Dublin and Edinburgh during the 1860s, which attempted to ascertain whether William Charles Yelverton had actually married Theresa or not before he married someone else, created enormous publicity at the time and challenged disparate laws governing marriage, especially between people of different faiths (she was Catholic, he was not). The two met on a steamer headed to Dover in 1852. Theresa was a 17-year-old convent-educated daughter of a Manchester silk manufacturer, and William was a 28-year-old Irish aristocrat in the Royal Artillery. After meeting, she boldly wrote to him a slew of fulsome correspondence that would later be used in the trials to discredit her. Schama chronicles their two marriage ceremonies, one informally performed in Scotland, the other in an Irish church, but neither had witnesses because Yelverton’s family would not abide marrying a Catholic and he possessed a “labyrinth” of inheritance difficulties. Shortly thereafter, William married another woman, and Theresa appealed to the public prosecutor in Edinburgh. Throughout the various trials and appeals, Theresa became a public advocate of marriage-law reforms. She was portrayed as young woman corrupted by her French education and by novels, immodest and unfeminine in her bold assertions that women could enjoy productive pursuits. Restless and constantly seeking, she later wrote novels and autobiographical accounts of her travels to America, Southeast Asia and South Africa, among others. She was, writes Schama, “perhaps the first woman to turn unwanted celebrity into a journalistic advantage.”
A compelling footnote that could ignite interest in Yelverton’s work.