Wedlock, By Wendy Moore

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The Independent Culture

Matrimony, for a wealthy girl in Georgian times, could be a desperate business. Marriage was for life. Married women had no rights and their property became their husbands'. Even canny fathers trying to protect their daughters financially could not anticipate the lengths to which unscrupulous grooms might go.

When he died in 1760, the coal-mining magnate George Bowes left his only child, the precocious 11-year-old Mary Eleanor, the richest heiress in England, worth between £80m and £150m in today's money. How shocked Bowes would have been to see Mary 23 years later – cowed, a nervous twitch in her jaw, hungry, covered in bruises and wearing underwear and stockings borrowed from her maids. This transformation was the result of her second marriage.

At 18 Mary wed John Lyon, the icy Earl of Strathmore (they would be great-great-great-grandparents of the late Queen Mother). Widowed at 27, the countess then walked down the aisle with an Irish soldier. "Captain" Andrew Robinson Stoney was described by his own father as "the most wretched man I ever knew" and inspired Thackeray's novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Wedlock, a sort of Georgian misery memoir, relates their union and the landmark case which saw Mary, with the help of four maidservants, extricate herself from her eight-year ordeal.

In this book about "how Georgian Britain's worst husband met his match", Wendy Moore whips along a story crammed with corrupt surgeons, questionable chaplains, fallen women and gossips. Satirised in cartoons by Gillray, mentioned in Horace Walpole's witchy letters, the Countess of Strathmore became one of Georgian society's most infamous females. A flourishing salacious press ensured the "bon ton" could enjoy each morsel of scandalous tittle-tattle.

Moore helpfully contextualises everything, from duelling etiquette to procuring abortions and the changing nature of marriage. Whereas traditional arranged marriages were concerned to form alliances and protect bloodlines, during the 18th century the idea of love began to figure – something blamed on the arrival of the novel. Some women eloped with beaux of their choosing, although the 1753 Marriage Act tried to curb such rash contracts.

When Mary met Andrew, she should have known better. Before accepting Lord Strathmore, she had enjoyed rejecting "a great many people of rank". Well-educated, a poetess and keen botanist who even financed a plant-seeking expedition to the Cape, Mary was no airhead. But she was foolish.

She began an affair with an adventurer, George Gray, while still married to the Earl. When her husband died, within the year Mary pledged to marry Gray, whose child she was carrying. But a new admirer had entered her circle– the charismatic Stoney. When the Morning Post printed gossip about the merry widow, Stoney fought a duel with the editor over Mary's honour.

Taking an apparently fatal blow, Stoney begged the countess to wed him on his deathbed. That the duel was a sham, and his injuries fake, seemed not to occur to Mary. Instead of weeping over his coffin, she lived to weep over her own credulity. The trickster had already married and mistreated one coal heiress, who conveniently died. Adopting the name of Bowes (as stipulated in Mary's father's will), her new husband ruled Mary with his fists while bleeding her estates dry.

Even 200 years on, the details of Stoney's cruelty are chilling. He forced Mary to write her "confessions" (which he later published) recounting her sins, from disliking her first son to having at least three abortions. He forbade her to see her mother, visit her own gardens, drink or eat unless he said so. Servants were ordered to spy on her. Whenever anything displeased Stoney, Mary took a beating; the staff soon learnt to ignore her screams. He hurled food at her, then demanded she ate it. He burned her face with a candle, held a knife at her throat, made her drink laudanum. Meanwhile, he intimidated his tenants, raped the nursemaids and fathered numerous bastards.

Deprived of her five older offspring by their guardians and of her younger two by Stoney, Mary appeared broken. But, as Moore shows, she wasn't completely hopeless. Before marrying Stoney, she had signed a prenuptial deed which guaranteed all proceeds from her father's estates were paid to her. Stoney insisted she revoke it but Mary had already given a copy to her footman (possibly a former lover) which he kept hidden. It proved critical in winning back her depleted fortune.

Mary's escape, her abduction by Stoney and dramatic rescue are grippingly told. There's a satisfying ending in which the law proved not to be an ass. Stoney spent 22 years as a prisoner but with a new "wife" whom he kept locked up and fed once a day. Free finally, Mary never married again.