I mentioned in passing that marriage was an institution that should not be ended, but should be mended. In the first place, let us inquire whether the marriage ceremony is a sacrament, whether parenthood is a sacrament, and why marriage should be binding. The Catholic Church refuses divorce altogether on the ground that the blessing of the Church makes the contract binding till death. Parents with children are generally prepared to endure each other for the sake of their family. While women are economically dependent it would be pure folly for them to advocate marriage for a short term. Very few women succeed in retaining their attraction for men for any considerable length of time. Ten years of attractiveness is not to be thought of in the majority of cases. While a man holds the purse-strings he can always find someone to marry. A woman can offer nothing but her power of enchantment, and most of them have to rely on the universal enchantment of innocence which can only be offered once.
But conditions are very variable even now. Women hold the purse-strings when they are heiresses. They are as free as men when they are childless. Ninon de l’Enclos was irresistible until she was eighty, apparently because she was amusing as well as fascinating. Under such circumstances as these it is sometimes wise to seek divorce. In England this cannot be done without outraging every feeling of dignity and delicacy.
Unless one of the married pair is faithless, impotent, cruel, or rich enough to leave the neighbourhood, the other cannot get a divorce. This involves discussing the secrets of the alcove with solicitors, and a final exposure of your domestic concerns in the law courts, for the press and the public to take or leave as they are more or less painful to you and amusing to them.
A very frequent method of obtaining a divorce now is for a wife, who would not touch her husband with a besom if she could help it, to sue publicly for restitution of conjugal rights. To a woman of any delicacy such a demand would be degrading, even if it were made in private. To be obliged to make it publicly as a matter of form is, to say the least, unpleasant to such a woman. The next proceeding is taken when a certain time has elapsed and the husband has not noticed the wife who has to pretend to be pining for his forced caresses.
I confess it is hard to realize the state of a woman who actually can desire the society of a man who is weary of her. I have not imagination for that, I am afraid. The law was made by men, and men are said to know women better than they know each other; also, we have all heard of the charms of a captured or unwilling bride, so perhaps it is an instance in which men have done for women what they would wish to have done for themselves.
Whatever the reason is, the law is there, and when the husband has been faithless and refused his wife’s embraces, he has done sufficient to justify the court in calling him guilty of desertion and adultery, and a decree nisi is pronounced. Then, if no evidence of collusion is forthcoming, and the court can make believe that one of the parties at least does not want to be divorced, the decree is made absolute in six months. Can anyone realize that the present divorce law is in such a hopelessly stupid state? There seems no possibility of using common sense in a law court. To get a divorce you must not agree together that it is a desirable step. To get a divorce the innocent person must speak in public of subjects no innocent person would care to mention in private. To get a divorce from a woman you respect at all, you must refuse to live with her, and must openly commit adultery, at the same time making no arrangement with her as to how she is to get rid of you. The old complaint of the inequality of the divorce laws for the sexes is perhaps of importance, but to me it seems a small thing in comparison to the general sordidness of the whole proceeding.
Surely the one cause of causes for a divorce is that both the parties want it. Some simple form of procedure, such as separation on the first application, to be followed by divorce in six months if the parties had not made up their differences in the meantime, should be devised.
The difficulties would arise in cases in which the parties were not agreed, and I am afraid in those instances the question of money would nearly always be discovered to be the root of the trouble. Ladies would be found to be unaccountably attached to their husband’s cheque-books; and gentlemen unable to separate themselves from a share in their wives’ dividends. But when the question of fortune or wealth enters into the marriage bargain, why not let it be fought out on that ground?
Divorce is always brought about because of the weariness and boredom one human being causes another. Cruelty, adultery, temporary desertion, every kind of outrage can be borne if excitement and interest counterbalance suffering. But the devotion of the whipped dog would soon be exhausted if the dog could find something in the world which interested him more than his master. Curiosity once fully satisfied, tenderness balances on the edge of the precipice of boredom, and may topple over at any moment.
Of course the insult of being considered a bore would be harder to bear in most instances than the accusation of wickedness, so on the whole it would seem advisable to keep to the good old formula of “incompatibility of temper,” and fight out the money questions on their own merits.
Now the merits of the money question in marriage have never been properly arranged. In France the wife has her own dot, as a matter of course; but the French have so carefully adjusted their population to their pockets that we can only bow in silent admiration of their unparalleled foresight.
In England a girl very often marries without any fortune of her own, on the understanding either that she is beautiful and that the husband is prepared to endow her with all his worldly goods, or that she is so useful that she will really save him a good deal of money. If she is very beautiful, her relations can generally get a settlement made on her; if she is only useful, she is lucky if she can induce her husband to insure his life in her favour. The merely useful wife has very little hold on ready money. One week she may get a good sum of money, another week nothing, for her household expenses. If she is clever and managing, she will probably gain her husband’s confidence, and if he is honest and has a regular income they may be very comfortable together; but under other conditions the affairs of the household go from bad to worse, and the wife is only a very inefficient servant, who may get her keep, but who will certainly not get her wages.
I can only suggest that the position of wife and mother ought to legally entitle a woman to a fixed proportion of her husband’s income, and the position of housekeeper to a further proportion. If, as is often the case in upper and middle-class modern marriage, the husband and wife do not live in the connubial state, the legal allowance as wife and mother would not be made, but the allowance as hostess and housekeeper could be enforced as long as they remained under the same roof. In the case of the poorer classes, where the wife does the whole work of keeping up the home and increasing the family, the proportion should be very much greater, so great, indeed, as to make both partners think twice before recklessly bringing children into the world. Among this class I think that the birth of a child might legalise the union of the parents. This appears to be an old custom in many parts of the world.
The working man is the greatest enemy of women’s equal value, I am afraid. Among the mining population, where his wages are high enough to make him independent, the woman he has married holds a very low position—very much what middle-class women held early in the nineteenth century. The working man of prudence and forethought is of course limiting his family with as much care as the rest of the world. But the others, who drive away drab intelligence by a Saturday orgy, forget prudence, and the result is that their wives are always in the pangs of childbirth or miscarriage. The usual self-sacrifice of women comes dangerously near suicide in this matter. To save her husband from a few moments of self-control she goes through months of drugging, loses her beauty, undermines her health in the endeavour to exercise prudence and to avoid bringing children into the world for whom she has no hope of making provision.
A romance of the mining world, in September, 1909, is instructive reading. One Friday night, at 10 o’clock, the husband came home with two former lodgers, two old friends, and one stranger. They brought plenty of beer with them. The wife was upstairs in bed, but she called over the banisters to them to make themselves at home, and returned to her sleep. Later on, when the men were nearly all dead drunk, one of the former lodgers heard screams upstairs. He found the stranger undressed and making an assault on the wife of his host. The lodger flung him downstairs, and to his horror found that he had killed him. He was terrified, and he and the woman left the house, calling to the others to fetch a doctor at once. Whatever the woman and he said to each other it was tragic, for she hurried to a pond and drowned herself, while he went to his sister’s house and waited arrest. The husband was severely reprimanded for his “negligence.” A woman counts for very little in the mining districts, she takes the German position of a kind of upper servant, in whose emotions, if she has any, none take any interest. In the manufacturing districts the working man’s wife is generally a breadwinner herself, and she only needs a little enterprise to make her position much more favourable than it is at present.
Nearly all the police court cases turn on the question of the wife’s housekeeping allowance. It is an endless source of dispute, and if it could be regulated, irrespective of caprice, most of the miseries of married poverty would cease. The poor are simple, and in this truth about them we see the truth about ourselves. We all want a regular income, and very few of us gain from being dependent on the affection of our family. Divorce, then, is sordid with regard to sentiment and with regard to money, and in these ways is greatly in need of change.