Bound in Union: The Difficulties of Obtaining a Divorce in Victorian England
Divorce Legislation of the Victorian
* 1839: Child Custody Act- Women, if proven innocent of adultery, could obtain custody of their children under seven. (Previously custody had been, without exception, awarded to the father.) * 1857: Matrimonial Causes Act- established regulations for secular divorce, making civil divorce, rather than divorce by act of Parliament, possible. Also outlined grounds for divorce, which differed for men and women, and secured property rights for divorced women. * 1870: Married Women’s Property Act- Allowed women to keep their earnings and inheritance along with small sums of money, though all other property fell to
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The main problems, which plagued individuals seeking divorce in the Victorian, concerned constraints based upon sex and wealth. Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, no courts existed to hear divorce cases. The only way to obtain a divorce, applying to Parliament for a private act, had only been achieved by four women in English history (Feinberg). This parliamentary method proved far to costly for women and the poor, remaining the privilege of the male landed gentry and aristocracy. Here, a circumstance arose where ideal starkly contrasted with reality in terms of how efficacious a manner the procedures of divorce functioned in. Believed universally applicable, this method of administering the legalities of divorce proved not only narrow and inequitable, but also inefficient as it occupied far too much of Parliament’s time. The House of Lords, who received petitions for divorce, felt the ever compounding depletion of its resouces, and this factor served as yet another motivating force behind the soon to arise reform legislation against such maladroit proceedings (Finlay, 2).
The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 undoubtedly constitutes the single most vital and revolutionary piece of Victorian legislation relating to divorce. The act established courts to replace Parliament as the governmental body responsible for attending to petitions, allowing secular divorce for the first time in England.