‘Remember Madame Bovary’: infidelity

  • Niamh Baker


There is a certain inertia that prevents most married couples taking decisive action to end a marriage. Frequently some catalyst is needed, in fact often sought, to provide the excuse as well as the energy to break up a marriage. In the immediate postwar period there was a steep rise in marital breakdown and the divorce rate began to climb.1 The reasons were many: marriages begun in the artificial atmosphere of war; long separation during war, with husbands away on active service and wives getting used to making the family decisions; the feelings generated by the war that life afterwards had to be better and fairer for all. Certainly the expectations of women had been raised, and in the general questioning of social values that immediately followed the war years it was not surprising that marriage itself should be subject to evaluation. Though this period did not last, swiftly turning into the elevation of marriage as women’s ‘career’ during the 1950s, these ideas did not just die out but continued to flicker, here and there, almost unobserved. One sign of this smouldering was the public debate about divorce, which continued to be a major preoccupation during the fifties, despite the fact that the divorce rate had begun to fall.2 Elizabeth Wilson suggests this was because criticism of marriage itself was largely eschewed and the problems relating to it could only surface in discussions about divorce.3


Divorce Rate Sexual Attraction Double Standard Woman Writer Beautiful Woman 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    The divorce figures in the years before and after the Second World War are listed in A. H. Halsey, Trends in British Society (London: Macmillan, 1972). However, Halsey warns against reading too much into divorce rates, pointing out that the figures are affected by the ease or difficulty of obtaining a divorce. He prefers to use the figures for petitions for divorce, rather than the decrees absolute, since the latter are affected by changes in the law suddenly expediting settlements of outstanding cases. The majority of petitions, he claims, end in divorce and are therefore a more reliable annual figure than decrees absolute (p. 28). Accordingly, I give these: Divorce petitions in England and Wales rose from 4784 in 1931–5 (when divorce procedures became easier) to 38 382 in 1951, with the introduction of the Legal Aid Scheme, which made divorce available to all classes. The drop in 1956 to 28 426 was only a temporary drop, the figures for 1961 and 1968 being 31 905 and 55 007 respectively (p. 47). In percentage terms, the rise in England and Wales was from 0.80 per cent per 1000 married women between the ages of 20 and 49 in 1931–5, to 5.23 per cent in 1951 and 7.4 per cent in 1968 (p. 48). The rise is even more startling if the rate of increase is calculated on marriages contracted five to fifteen years earlier: from 1.9 per cent in 1937 to 7.4 per cent in 1953 and rising to 15.9 per cent in 1968 (p. 49). This indicates an increasing social acceptance of divorce among younger married couples.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    It was still higher than the pre-war level, of course. See Note 1 above.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Elizabeth Wilson, Only Halfway to Paradise (London: Tavistock, 1980).Google Scholar
  4. See also, Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce (the Morton Commission) Cmd 9678 (London: HMSO, 1956).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    The penalties could affect a mother’s right to custody of her children. See, for example, the awarding of custody of a two-year-old child to the husband in 1951 on the basis that, according to the judge: ‘It could never be in the interests of the child to be entrusted to a woman who had committed adultery’ (Julia Brophy and Carol Smart, ‘From Disregard to Disrepute: The Position of Women in Family Law’ in E. Whitelegg et al. (eds), The Changing Experience of Women (Oxford: The Open University, 1982) p. 213). The same article also cites Lord Denning’s argument in favour of conflating moral behaviour and mothering ability. The whole section of this analysis throws an interesting light on assumptions about women and marriage during the period. See especially pp. 211—19 of this article for a discussion on the laws relating to divorce.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1948);Google Scholar
  7. Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1953).Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Wilson, Only Halfway to Paradise, p. 74.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek (London: Virago, 1986. First published in 1951) p. 177.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    For those unfamiliar with Madame Bovary, Charles was the cuckolded husband of Emma Bovary.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek. See p. 126.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Ibid, p. 245.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    Elizabeth Taylor, Palladian (London: Virago, 1985. First published in 1946).Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Cassandra’s father was, of course, quoting from John Keats’ poem, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    Mrs Veal appears in Palladian, Vesey’s mother in A Game of Hide and Seek.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    Mary McMinnies, The Visitors (Bath: Cedric Chivers, 1971. First published in 1958).Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980. First published in 1958).Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980. First published in 1952).Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    Olivia Manning, The Doves of Venus (London: Virago, 1984. First published in 1955).Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (London: Virago, 1983. First published in 1950).Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    Elizabeth Jenkins, The Tortoise and the Hare (London: Virago, 1983. First published in 1954).Google Scholar
  22. 20.
    Ibid, p. 36.Google Scholar
  23. 21.
    Ibid, p. 69.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    Ibid, p. 245.Google Scholar
  25. 23.
    Ibid, p. 86.Google Scholar
  26. 24.
    Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Long View (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976. First published in 1956).Google Scholar
  27. 25.
    Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour (London: Chatto & Windus, 1969. First published in 1947).Google Scholar
  28. 26.
    Ibid, p. 66.Google Scholar
  29. 27.
    Ibid, p. 164.Google Scholar
  30. 28.
    Ibid, p. 152.Google Scholar
  31. 29.
    Ibid, p. 63.Google Scholar
  32. 30.
    Ibid, p. 121.Google Scholar
  33. 31.
    Olivia Manning, Artist Among the Missing (London: Heinemann, 1945. Reissued 1975).Google Scholar
  34. 32.
    One exception, perhaps, is The Doves of Venus, where there is a confusion between the setting of the novel — after the Second World War — and Manning’s memories of being a young woman in the inter-war years.Google Scholar
  35. 33.
    Manning, Artist Among the Missing, p. 248.Google Scholar
  36. 34.
    Comyns, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths.Google Scholar
  37. 35.
    Taylor, A View of the Harbour, p. 95.Google Scholar
  38. 36.
    This view of women as a marketable commodity has not vanished. See, for example, Jolyon Jenkins’s article in The Observer on the advertising of Third World women as wives for white men (‘Bride Market’, 13 Sept 1987), followed by the ambiguous colour-supplement treatment of the same subject the following week.Google Scholar

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© Niamh Baker 1989

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  • Niamh Baker

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