This was an absolutely horrifying story. The manipulation and psychological abuse that Mary Eleanor suffered, as well as the near-fatal physical abuse, is almost beyond belief. And Stoney seemed to hide it so well from outsiders – not only that, but he continued to make people fall for him and his stories throughout their marriage. I heard a reference to Josef Fritzl today on a comedy show and Andrew Robinson Stoney Bowes was that level of abuse and deception. It is one of those things that makes you wonder about humanity.
Seriously, how does this type of thing happen? Why is there an entire section of the bookstore dedicated to “painful lives” or whatever it is they call it? I’m not asking why the books are written, or why they’re read, but why these lives have to happen in the first place. Why did the “unhappy countess” have to endure eight years of systematic, deliberate abuse and another two or more of manipulation and harassment through the newspapers, public opinion, and the courts before anyone would take her seriously? Some of it is the attitude toward women in general, from a legal perspective, at the time, but abusive relationships still happen. Rape is still difficult to prove. Divorce battles still come down to a war of words in the press, with both sides seeing who can smear each other the most.
The edition I read is a book-club oriented one so it has discussion questions at the end. One of the questions is “Would [Stoney] perhaps have been diagnosed with a psychotic personality disorder?” I have to hope that he would be. His upbringing was not that unusual; he wasn’t apparently abused as a child; his siblings were all ‘normal’ for lack of a better word, at least as far as we know. There is no obvious rationale for his behavior, no explanation for his completely disparate public and private personas. That’s the most chilling thing, I think: that he could so completely mislead people as to his true behavior and that he apparently believed his excuses himself. He either believed them, or knew enough of society’s morals to know that his behavior was out of the ordinary and therefore he needed the excuses. I’m not sure if it’s worse to think that he was delusional enough to believe his own hype, or if it’s worse to think that he knew exactly what he was doing.
Mary Eleanor’s life wasn’t completely innocent, of course. She wasn’t a paragon of virtue; if anything she was the opposite. But she reflects every rape or abuse victim who has been blamed for their situation because of the way they dressed, or the fact that they were drinking, or “they should have known better than to…..” And that’s another thing that sickens me sometimes: even with all the advances that have been made in women’s rights in the last two hundred years, there are still people who blame the victim in these situations. In Mary Eleanor’s case, even her own children blamed her. Let’s come to an understanding here, shall we? Just because a woman (because it’s usually a woman) doesn’t conform to your standards of morality or behavior or dress or whatever you are judging her by, it doesn’t mean that she should be abused, raped, tortured, imprisoned, kidnapped, molested, attacked, harassed, etc. She is not “asking for it”. She doesn’t deserve it. No matter what her past or even present behavior might be.
As a book, this was fairly well-written and definitely well-researched. There were a few phrases that recurred to the point where I noticed them, which is not necessarily a good sign – I wasn’t making notes or anything so I don’t have the specifics to find them again – but women tend to be more sensitive to repeated words and phrasings according to one study that I heard about, and by the end of the book they’d either stopped or I’d stopped noticing them. It started slowly (for me, at least) but I raced through the end, hoping for at least a peaceful ending for Mary Eleanor and getting increasingly angry at Stoney’s manipulations of her and others. I forgot about the writing and just cared about the characters and the story. This is particularly impressive when you know how incredibly boring I normally find the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (“Blah blah blah lots of politics” is my typical reaction.) But this book made me actually care about the people and the time and wonder about some of the auxiliary characters (like Jesse Foot, for instance. What made him so loyal to Stoney in life and so disloyal after Stoney’s death? Interesting character. Or some of the “notorious” nobles, et cetera, mentioned – they may be notorious, but I have no idea beyond the hints given here, and it makes me curious).
It’s not a book that’s for everyone, I don’t think. Like I said, it started slowly and if you are badly affected by tales of physical and emotional abuse, it’s definitely not going to appeal. But it’s more than worth reading if you’re interested in historical biography, women’s rights, survivor stories, the Georgian era in Britain, or any combination of the above.