When reading historical fiction, it isn’t uncommon to have a man marrying someone ‘beneath him’ – witness Mr Darcy, who for all Elizabeth’s claims that they are both gentlemen’s children, knows that her family is “decidedly beneath my own”. However, Darcy had the man’s unquestioned right to choose. It was far less common to see a woman marry ‘beneath her’, but the Georgian period provides two fascinating examples with two very different outcomes.
The Bad – Mary, Countess of Strathmore
Mary Eleanor Bowes was the greatest heiress in England, if not Europe, when she married the Earl of Strathmore in 1767. Born in Mayfair, she was assured success with her vast fortune. She bore the Earl five children – she was openly proud to say that they were all his – but their marriage was not particularly happy. Lord Strathmore then contracted tuberculosis, which killed him on his way to Portugal.
This is where it turns scandalous. In 1777 Mary met ‘Captain’ Andrew Stoney (sometimes known as Andrew Robinson Stoney), who charmed his way into her bed. However, Stoney was little more than an adventurer; he had been a lieutenant, not a captain, had no money, and had already convinced one heiress to marry him and regret it. However, Mary was not the shrewdest lady, and Stoney was determined. After the Morning Post published gossip about her private life, Stoney challenged the editor to a duel, to be carried mortally wounded to Mary, where he begged her to marry him before he died. Fatefully, Mary agreed.
The moment they were married, Stoney made a miraculous recovery and made her life hell. Violent, extravagant and reckless, he beat her, abducted her when she escaped, imprisoned her, squandered her resources and more. It turned out that he had also written the scurrilous letters to the Morning Post in the first place.
Trapped in her hideous marriage, Mary showed remarkable courage. After eight years and numerous attempts to escape, she managed to file for divorce, and after fighting for another four years under more threats and attempts to kidnap her, she won her freedom. Sadly, she never fully recovered from her ordeal, dying in 1800 at the age of 51. Her horrendous husband outlived her by ten years, dying in the debtors’ prison in 1810.
The Good – Emily, Duchess of Leinster
Once called the ‘proudest woman in England’, the Duchess of Leinster began life as Lady Emily Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond and a descendant of King Charles II. She was the acknowledged beauty of her family, marrying the Earl of Kildare when she was sixteen, and went on to have twenty-three children. Kildare was granted his dukedom for his political work in 1766.
In 1773, the Duke died, and the following year the Duchess created a sensation by marrying William Ogilvie: a Scot nine years her junior, shy and awkward, often grubby, and working as her children’s tutor. In fact she had been having an affair with Ogilvie for some time, her son Lord George Fitzgerald being actually Ogilvie’s child.
To escape the scandal, the Duchess and her husband went to Paris; in Dublin and London, it was said that she might as well have married her footman, and like Mary Bowes, she did not give up her title on remarriage. Yet unlike Mary, her second marriage was happy. She and Ogilvie had three children together, and were happily married for forty years until her death in 1814. A portrait of her at seventy-eight was described by her husband as that of ‘the loveliest woman of your age’.