A sprightly feminist biography of a British heiress.
Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749–1800) was the only child of the enormously wealthy George Bowes, owner of abundant coal deposits in County Durham and Yorkshire. She was educated by a slew of tutors and earned the admiration of her doting father, who died when she was 11, leaving the young girl under the lax attention of aunts. As the idea of marrying for love was gaining currency—and there was nobody to check her impulses—Mary Eleanor first married John Lyon, the handsome, reserved older ninth Earl of Strathmore, with whom she had little in common. After effectively signing over her family’s properties to him, he ran up ruinous debts before leaving her a widow before the age of 30, with five children. Less than a year later, she was essentially duped into believing that an ardent admirer and cunning Irish opportunist, Andrew Robinson Stoney, fought a duel over her and lay dying; recklessly, she married him in 1777. Despite a miraculous recovery, Stoney proved to be a libertine, gambler, crook, wife-beater and all-around villain who made Mary Eleanor’s life hell for nearly a decade. Moore (The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery, 2005) vividly demonstrates that despite enjoying every material advantage, Mary Eleanor was virtually imprisoned and disenfranchised in her two marriages. The author skillfully chronicles her ultimate escape and vindication through the courts, emphasizing how the Bowes’ sensational divorce case paved the way for the reform of divorce and custody laws in England.
A rollicking good tale that effectively illustrates the level of marital entrapment endured by women of the Georgian era.