I found the following story in Wendy Moore’s book Wedlock (2009). This story is set a bit earlier than my normal focus (set in the early eighteenth century, instead of the long nineteenth), but it was too weird a tale not to tell it.
The bulk of the narrative is about the absolutely disastrous marriage between Mary Eleanor Bowes, Dowager Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne (the great-great-great-great-great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth, and the 6x great-grandmother of Benedict Cumberbatch), and her second husband and total shit head, Andrew Robinson Stoney (upon whom Thackeray’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon was based).
However, today’s story is not about their massively fucked up relationship (which is a story that, quite rightly, takes Moore more than 400 pages to tell), but rather is a brief aside about Mary’s father, George Bowes, and his first wife.
George Bowes was the third son born to a wealthy MP. His father died when he was young, and the estate passed to George’s two older brothers, who both died in quick succession soon thereafter. The estate fell to George, who had run away from home five years previously, at the age of eighteen, to join the army. When he inherited, he came back to manage his business interests. This also involved getting married and producing an heir.
At the age of twenty-three, he “married fourteen-year-old Eleanor Verney following a passionate courtship which began when she was only ten” (21).
WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK
A strategic alliance between families, with marriage negotiations starting when the participants are very young? This I understand.
But a passionate courtship between a nineteen-year-old and a ten-year-old? This generated so much side eye that my head has completely spun around and has now screwed off my body, like a light bulb out of its fitting.
She “was heiress to the considerable wealth of her grandfather, the Dean of Windsor. By the age of thirteen, she was renowned for her beauty and her learning . . . . Undoubtedly, the marriage negotiations had initially been prompted by financial motives on the part of Bowes and possibly his mother, in common with the vast majority of marriage between prosperous landed families in the early eighteenth century . . . . however, Bowes was helplessly in love with the beguiling Eleanor” (21-22).
EASY THERE, JOHN RUSKIN
NO ONE SHOULD FIND TEN-YEAR-OLDS ROMANTICALLY “BEGUILING”
He started writing her some extremely impassioned letters pledging his love and sincerest, most upstanding respect. Eleanor was a bit like, “WTF” and wrote him back coolly polite letters. His response?
“Dear Madam, I am not able to bear the cruel absence from my angel any longer without having recourse to Pen&Paper for relief of my tortur’d heart which can at present find no other way to ease its self” (22).
Simmer down, Humbert Humbert
Thankfully (?) the legal age for girls to marry was only twelve, so, with contracts all settled up by the lawyers, they got married. And believe you me, they got down to some sex real quick. Shortly after the marriage, George went away on business and wrote a saucy letter to his child-bride: “I assure you that I found my Bed very cold last night for want of my Companion” (22).
Of course, we don’t know what Eleanor thought about all of this. We don’t really hear her side of the story in the book, assuming there are any letters or records from her surviving.
However, a mere two and a half months after the wedding, Eleanor died suddenly, probably of an infection. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote a poem commemorating Eleanor’s death, and the poem implied that she had been killed by George’s sexual vigour.
George was prostrate with grief. Adding insult to injury, George was immediately forced to repay Eleanor’s dowry to her family . . . with interest.
It took him nineteen years to recover and remarry. In 1743, at the age of forty-two, he married another wealthy heiress about half his age, Mary Gilbert (thankfully she was at least in her twenties).
“Although their partnership proved companionable enough, Mary would always stand in the shadow of her formidable husband and the ghost of her adored predecessor – Bowes’s ‘favourite first wife’ . . . . If she were ever tempted to forget her forerunner, there were no less than six portraits of ‘the first Mrs Bowes’ hanging at Gibside, including one in the second Mrs Bowes’s bedroom, to remind her” (25).
Despite many attempts at producing the ever elusive male “heir and spare”, George and Mary had one daughter after six years of marriage. Unsurprisingly, they named her Mary Eleanor, after her mother and after George’s first wife.