Wild Romance is the study of a generation undergoing seismic change. By Clare Lanigan.
Life imitates art, as the old saying goes, but more often than not it’s the opposite that’s the case. Writers, no matter how literary, can’t help being influenced by the scandalous stories of their day, and this was as true in 19th century Dublin as it is now.
The Thelwall v Yelverton trial, which was brought in Dublin in 1861 on behalf of Theresa Longworth against the man she claimed was her husband, Major Charles Yelverton, gripped the nation and was covered exhaustively by the penny press – the Now Magazine of its day. Countless novels and stories sprang from this case, the details of which lay somewhere between tragedy and comedy - the most famous of which was Wilkie Collins’ Man and Wife, published in 1870.
(Picture: The Four Courts in the 19th century)
In her first book, American historian Chloe Schama has attempted to tell the story of Theresa Longworth (or Yelverton, depending on where your sympathies lie) in the wider context of mid-19th century morals, hypocrisy and convoluted marriage laws. The gold embossed lettering and swooning maiden on the cover indicates Mills & Boon purple-spine territory, but that is misleading – this is a pacy, well-written combination of biography and sociology that wears its author’s considerable research lightly.
The story follows the fortunes of textile merchant’s daughter Theresa Longworth, from the moment she became fixated on Charles Yelverton on a ferry to Dover in 1853, through their halting courtship and alleged secret marriages in Scotland and Ireland, her multiple and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get the courts to recognise the pair as married and her later life as a world traveller and writer.
The story is certainly some class of a romance, but it’s hard to warm to either of them or root for one over the other. Contemporary observers saw Theresa’s single-minded pursuance of a clearly unenthusiastic Yelverton as emblematic of ideal female loyalty, but to modern eyes it seems delusional and manipulative. Yelverton on the other hand comes across as foolish and cowardly.
However, the individual characters of the protagonists became less important as the case grew to symbolic proportions, with Theresa either a representation of the wronged wife or the wicked harlot, seemingly the only versions of women that existed in the Victorian imagination.
The growing significance of class and sectarian conflict in this period also threatened to take over the facts. (Theresa was middle-class, English and Catholic, while Yelverton was aristocratic, Anglo-Irish and Protestant.) Championed by the hundreds of ordinary people who stuffed the High Court in Dublin every day of the first trial, Theresa’s case was eventually defeated on appeal in the Scottish courts and all her claims to matrimony disappeared. She remained popular in the public eye, publishing several books, however her very visibility and activity made her a suspect figure in an era when women were supposed to do little and say less.
Schama weaves an intriguing story, with perceptive commentary on the contemporary changing nature of legal proceedings, press reporting and public engagement with such events, but her attempts to cast Theresa as some kind of proto-feminist are less convincing.
She was undoubtedly intelligent and eventually made a living from writing, but her life’s mission was to persuade the man she believed she had married to accept responsibility for her and keep her as a traditional Victorian wife. Ironically, her later years showed that she was a courageous traveller, even in dangerous scenarios, and would probably have been utterly unsuited to the role she craved.
But her extravagant self-pity and delusion makes her ultimately unsympathetic, as does the vile racism she expressed in her writings on the American South (which Schama rather weakly tries to indicate was hammed-up for the British travel writing market).
Ultimately, this is less the story of one woman and her ill-fated love affair than the study of a generation undergoing seismic change. It’s often forgotten that the 19th century was really the period in which the world as we know it today was created. While some aspects of the time – obsessive prudery, the political and social helplessness of women – will seem utterly foreign, the gossip pages, interest in scandal and the role of the courts in bringing about changes in legislation will seem very familiar to us today.
Wild Romance by Chloe Schama