2009, 310p + notes
The author of this book is a journalist, not an historian, but she’s certainly done her homework. It is the story of Mary Eleanor Bowes-Lyon, daughter of the Earl of Strathmore, and her violent marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney. Stoney was the inspiration for Thackeray’s book The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which was turned into film by Stanley Kubrick. ( I strongly encourage you to follow these Wikipedia links- it will give you a much better idea of the plot than I could).
But Barry Lyndon the book was fiction: this was true life, even if it reads like fiction today. There’s everything here: scandal, kidnapping and duping of heiresses, midnight horseback rides through the Pennines, coffee shop pamphlets, court cases etc. Wendy Moore does this rich material proud, starting her story with a mysterious duel in a public house, and introducing each of the main characters one by one before turning around to deconstruct the duel completely and expose it as a completely faked scenario, intended to lure the wealthy heiress Mary into an ill-advised marriage. Andrew Robinson Stoney, who changed his name to Bowes in order to access Mary Eleanor’s fortune, was almost unbelievably cruel, vindictive and scheming and a thorough rotter.
Moore is firmly on Mary’s side and portrays her as the victim both of domestic violence and a legal system that strongly favoured rich men. But the sources that Moore draws on are deeply problematic and themselves part of an ongoing propanda war, played out in the full glare of publicity. She relies heavily on Jesse Foot, the author of The lives of Andrew Robinson Bowes Esq and the Countess of Strathmore who was himself deeply implicated in Stoney’s schemes, and seems to have changed his allegiences several times. Mary’s “confession”, which was also published, was apparently forced from her at the point of a gun but was also published. In fact, the whole scenario brought domestic violence amongst the aristocracy out into the public domain, and it played out through, and itself fed, the appetite for gossip and innuendo. Mary, however, was no innocent and could play the game of gossip and publicity just as well as her husband could: while not cruel or violent, she was just as cavalier with her emotions and children as her husband was.
The story is carefully and well told. After its particularly well-constructed beginning, it is a fairly straight chronological account and, to its credit, the story is so well told that you rarely lose track. A family tree would have been useful, but no doubt it would have ended up looking like a family thicket! The author wanders off into some interesting little byways- e.g. contraception in the late 1700s; the coffee-shop culture etc., but I do wish that she’d picked up more on the nature of her sources, the 18th century public sphere and the expectations of the aristocracy. I think that she could have upped the analysis, but then perhaps it would alienated its bodice-ripper audience. As it stands, it’s a rattling good read, with the edginess of knowing that it was based on a real marriage among real people.