Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Wild Romance by Chloë Schama

Connected reading, file 1

During a ten year period in the mid 19th century a different kind of court case hit the headlines in Europe and America, it was Longworth vs Yelverton.

Theresa Longworth met William Charles Yelverton in 1852 during a boat trip from France to England. They talked the whole night and afterwards started a correspondence that continued for years. The unusual thing about it, was that it was the woman who started the correspondence, and pursued the acquaintance.

They couple spent most of the time in different places all over Europe. Yelverton was a military man and went where he was posted. When he came to Crimea, Theresa followed him there to work as a nurse with a convent. Later on, when they were both in Scotland, they entered into a closer relationship which led to a different kind of marriage.  On April 12, 1857, Yelverton declared himself her husband with his hand on a Book of Common Prayer. There were no witnesses, but according to Scottish Common Law, Yelverton’s alleged declaration constituted a marriage. It was not unusual that people got married like this it seems.

However, Theresa was not entirely comfortable with this ‘marriage’. Being a catholic she wanted the approval of a priest. So she arranged a trip to Ireland, got hold of a priest in a rather deserted area. After some ‘complications’, Yelverton was not a catholic, there were no witnesses etc the priest finally married them. Yelverton had insisted that the marriage had to be kept secret from his family and friends, so the registration was not put in the ordinary book, but a reference was made by the priest.

Theresa arrange all these things, and you can wonder why she was not suspicious about the whole, secret thing. Shortly after the marriage, they separated again. Some time later Yelverton marries a widow and Theresa is on her own. In the following years both of them went to courts in Ireland, Scotland and England; one to get the marriages certified, the other to confirm that they were not legal marriages. The final trial in England stated that they were not married.

This could have been the end of it, and in a way it was. However, Theresa was no ordinary woman. As seen from the courtship, she was one of the more active partners and she had some kind of idea that Yelverton was hers and hers alone. After the last and final court case, Theresa continued to fight for women’s right and security in marriage. We have to remember that women did in principal not have any rights what so ever in those days.

Finally, she left England and started her years of travelling. She spent several years in different places in America, wrote novels, articles, self biographies and told the world about her travelling. It seems that her writing was not that great, but being the person she was, she managed to put her articles in different papers. She did a lot of adventure travel that not even men did in those days. After America, she went to Asia where she spent several years in different countries, before returning to Europe. Her final destination was South Africa where she died at the age of 48 in 1881.

The book is telling her story through the correspondence between the lovers, through court protocols, newspapers and her own writing. Although it is difficult to get a grip of her character, one can not help but admire this lady who made such hardship trips in those days. When she came to Hong Kong she wrote that the expatriate community was all “money getting men and drawing room ladies who can not imagine I can have any other object in travelling fourteen thousand miles to Hong Kong than to lounge on a sofa.” She was always in the limelight due to her background and the way she acted and she wrote: “It is strange that at first wherever I go people are greatly delighted to know me, but then the very qualities which have brought me out here…are the very ones they dislike.”

Her story has given inspiration to writers. Many writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins attended trials to get inspiration for their books. Inspired by the trials were J.R. O’Flanagans Gentle Blood; or, The Secret Marriage, Cyrus Redding’s A Wife and Not a Wife and maybe the most famous bigamy novel of the 19th century, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret.

This book tells us of a fascinating and interesting destiny. She was fantastic in the sense that she was not afraid of anything, possibly only loneliness, she took great risks in her travelling and made friends everywhere. Quite a fantastic woman, although I think it is better to have her at a little bit of distance. I had never heard about Theresa Longworth before reading this book. Many years ago, I read a book called Spinsters Abroad. I have to go back and look if she is among these women.

The story is well put together in chronological order. The author makes references to other cases, politics and history at the time. On top of that we get to travel to places which were rather wild in those days.

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