Harry Fairless - Work in progress video (Bigamy, Class and Women)

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Information about Harry Fairless - Work in progress video (Bigamy, Class and Women)

Published on October 1, 2014

Author: harryfairless

Source: authorstream.com

Work in progress video: Work in progress video Class, Bigamy and women: Class, Bigamy and women The topic I have chosen will investigate how bigamy was perceived in relation to women and their place in society between 1760 and 1815. I will address a number of questions: How were bigamous women treated and punished? How was class a factor in this, if at all? How did women’s experiences differ from men? What does this tell us about British society at the time, especially in relation to gender? I am undertaking this topic because gender issues are a perennially relevant facet of society. In my research I hope to discover and illuminate hitherto unknown or under-analysed details regarding the connections between women, bigamy, and class, to better understand the roles, perceptions, and sexual and marital agency of women in late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth century Britain. There is also a lack of scholarship about bigamy during this period (especially in comparison to adultery), and it is a topic that deserves greater attention and scrutiny. I will be using primary sources mostly from ECCO and Old Bailey, but some articles from the Burney Collection will be used as well. Sources: Sources Old Bailey: I have been going through all the bigamy cases I can find in the Old Bailey archives and tabulating information I see as relevant. The table is divided into columns for the following information: the case, reference number, date, verdict, punishment, occupation and class (if the information is available), gender, and general notes (such as the circumstances of the defendant and other people involved, reasons for the verdict, gender and class implications, etc.) By tabulating this information I hope to gather knowledge about the connections between bigamy, class, and gender. For instance, were bigamous women punished differently from men? What were the circumstances under which people committed bigamy, especially women? Why did they commit bigamy (Out of desperation, pragmatism, love, perhaps they thought their first spouse dead, etc.) Were there circumstances where bigamy was more or less acceptable/punishable (some cases seem to suggest so)? What class are the defendants, typically? Are there any connections between bigamy and class? Old Bailey records deal mostly with working class people, so comparing these cases to texts in ECCO regarding aristocratic bigamy cases is necessary. Initial findings suggest that bigamy was considered a more serious crime if committed among aristocrats than the lower classes, at least according to certain commentators. Sources, continued: Sources, continued ECCO Sources: Sources from ECCO will be used for their commentaries on the topic of bigamy, whether they be purely factual or normative. For an example of the factual, Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz’s A picture of England tells us that “The punishment awarded by the law for bigamy, is a red hot iron applied to the hand; but the nobility are exempted by ancient usage from this application ” (p.252). This provides us with an insight into the different class experiences of bigamous women—punishments differed according to class. I also want to deal with different opinions of the time regarding bigamy and women. Burney Collection: I am using sources from the Burney Collection in a similar capacity to the ECCO sources, at least in terms of commentary on bigamy. While I’m not trying to gather some sort of consensus of opinion, I would like to gather some different views that people had on the topic I’m investigating. A letter written to the St. James's Chronicle expresses the following opinion: Sources, Cont.: Sources, Cont. “It seems a defect in our law that Adultery is not considered and punished as a crime. If upon a verdict against the adulterer, at the suit of the injured husband, both the offending parties were arrested and imprisoned by the sentence of the Court for a limited time, suppose from one to five years, according to the circumstances of the misdemeanour, this would stop the progress of adultery.” Here we have someone who thought that men and women were equally guilty in the act of adultery (if not bigamy). Further on I’ll talk about a view that differed from this one, in which men were largely seen as the guilty party. Historical thinking/ historiography and Hypotheses/Initial Findings: Historical thinking/ historiography and Hypotheses/Initial Findings I want to engage with scholarship and ideas about how women were perceived in relation to marriage, sexuality, the law, and gender roles during the period between 1760-1815. There is quite a bit of scholarship about women and adultery during this period, but less so specifically about bigamy. The two topics tend to overlap, however, so we can glean some information about the topic of women and bigamy from some secondary sources that deal primarily with adultery. Something I’m interested in are the ways in which privilege and power operated in the context of bigamy, class and women, as I think it is a more complex issue than it seems on the surface. For instance, there was much more pressure—or at least wider condemnation—placed on bigamous women of the gentry, due to the factors of celebrity, scandal, and social paranoia. The Duchess of Kingston’s bigamy trial is a good example of this, as it caused such a national uproar. Cont.: Cont. Matthew J. Kinservik’s book Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity in Late Eighteenth-Century England sheds light on the way women of privilege could actually be disadvantaged compared to lower class women accused of bigamy. He writes “the duchess’s bigamy represented a threat to the political order that was just as real as that of George Washington and his rebel army. Americans took up arms against the British government, but the duchess’s bigamy threatened the system more subtly by tampering with the lineal succession of a noble line. Bigamy involving a noblewoman was more than just a sex crime, it was a dangerous political act” (p.9). Therefore, according to Kinservik , noble women who were accused of bigamy had their own unique experience compared to that of bigamous women in the lower classes. This is not to say that bigamous women among the proletariat were better off. Some of them married a new husband for (at least in my opinion) legitimate reasons, such as abandonment by their first husband, or if their first husband went missing, leaving the wife without support. If found guilty they could lose the support of their new husband and be left destitute. I’m thus aiming to contribute to such debates surrounding female oppression and agency in terms of class, and perhaps find some unexpected results along the way. Cont.: Cont. I also want to explore how privilege operated in relation to gender more broadly. A common punishment for bigamous women was to be branded, which doubtlessly would have been very painful and would have left a mark of shame. However, men were also branded and often had to pay fines and serve time in prison (sometimes up to a year). In one circumstance, a man named James Cooke (fitting name) was sentenced to seven years transportation. Men thus tended to suffer equal or greater punishment than bigamous women, at least as far as the working class went. Cont.: Cont. Further, I will engage with academic perspectives of how women were treated and perceived in relation to bigamy and sexuality. In Katherine Binhammer’s article “The sex panic of the 1790s”, she writes about British anxiety over the French Revolutions and fears about similar social instability, connecting a perceived breakdown in marriage and female “virtue” with national weakness. However, male faithfulness and commitment to a single marriage and sexual relationship was also placed under scrutiny during the period. Based on my Old Bailey research so far, more men were trialled for bigamy than women. There could be numerous explanations for this: Men had more opportunity to commit bigamy. A lot of men would regularly move around for work and thus marry two women in two different places. The wives were often ignorant (or at least claimed ignorance) of this, and thus were innocent in a lot of cases. Some commentators at the time saw men (at least adulterous and bigamous ones) as seducers and manipulators of women, who were seen as naive and innocent. A sermon by the Bishop of Rochester published in the General Evening Post on May 22, 1800, claims that the man “for the most part is the author” of adultery. Cont.: Cont. While I cannot say whether such a view was common (though there were other commentators who shared his opinion), it shows that women were not held solely to blame for infidelity. And while this is not directly about bigamy, it tells us something about the roles and responsibilities society placed on men and women in terms of sex and marriage. We can infer that there was an image of women as a stabilising force in both marriage and wider society, and if this position was threatened, such as by wily men taking advantage of women, or a perceived lack of virtue in women, it would lead to social degradation. Monogamous marriage was seen as integral to social cohesion, just as it still is in many countries today, and the behaviour of both men and women of different classes was regulated by law and general social pressure so that a cultural commitment to monogamy could be maintained.

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