Mary Vezey, Sarah Chapone, and the Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives (1732-35)

Posted by Krista J. Kesselring; 11 October 2020.

‘A good Husband would not desire the Power of Horse-whipping, confining, Half-starving his Wife, or squandering her Estate; a bad Husband should not be allowed it.’

So wrote Sarah Chapone in her Hardships of the English Laws in Relations to Wives, published in 1735. A remarkable but long unremarked work, Chapone’s text has started to receive attention from scholars interested in feminist political philosophy and women’s writings. Readers interested in crime and the courts – and the representation of crime in the media – might well turn to Chapone’s work, too.

Though the Hardships appeared anonymously, scholars have since identified Sarah or Sally Chapone, née Kirkam, as its author. The mother of five children and wife of a Gloucester vicar, Chapone was also a correspondent or friend of a number of notables, such as John and Charles Wesley, Samuel Richardson, Mary (Granville) Delany, and Elizabeth Elstob. Through Elstob, she had connections to Mary Astell and her circle; through her daughter-in-law, Hester (Mulso) Chapone, she developed links to the later ‘Bluestocking’ cadre of noted women writers. She contributed to George Ballard’s Memoirs of Several Learned Ladies of Great Britain (1752). But only in the 1980s did her authorship of the Hardships come to be known beyond her own circles of acquaintances.

Scholars interested in women’s writings and philosophy have dissected Chapone’s particular Christian or conservative stream of feminist thought, based on her premise that the English law’s peculiar set of disabilities imposed upon women at marriage, known as coverture, went far beyond what the biblical curse of wifely subjection mandated. Jacqueline Broad goes further in arguing that Chapone ‘deserves a prominent place in the history of feminist philosophy as one of the first writers consistently to apply what is now known as the republican concept of liberty to the situation of married women’. Susan Paterson Glover, Margaret Hunt and Barbara Todd have also helped bring the Hardships to the attention of women’s historians and literary scholars more generally.[1] This post highlights a hitherto unremarked connection with the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and its reporting of crime and punishment in the metropolis.

‘Liberty, Property, and No Excise’

Chapone opened her text by asserting that the state of wives in English law was worse, in some respects, than that of people enslaved. The comparison drew in part on recent public debates over a proposed excise, with their linking of personal freedom and rights to property. (The rhetoric of political slavery in these years sits uncomfortably against the realities of chattel slavery then being entrenched in the colonies, but at the very least shows that people then knew full well that ‘slavery was wrong’, pace claims one sometimes sees online.) Member of Parliament George Heathcote at one point had compared the state of English subjects under the proposed excise to that of enslavement, warning his fellows not to accept the argument that the king would not abuse the power given to him by insisting that ‘the slave who has the good fortune to meet with a good natured and an humane master is not less a slave than he who meets with a cruel and barbarous one’.[2] Chapone offered a similar observation in response to suggestions that most husbands did not abuse the power law gave them over their wives: even so, it was simply a power the law ought not to allow them.

While Chapone was responding in part to recent debates that grounded the abstract liberties of the freeborn English man in his rights to property, she was also drawing upon reports in the popular press of egregious abuses suffered by very real women under English law.  She opened with brief summaries of four recent court cases in which women found themselves bereft of their property or even their lives at their husbands’ hands. In these cases, she wrote, the courts not only failed to see justice done to the individuals involved but also offered decisions that advertised and worsened the subjection of women more generally. Her summary of the case that prompted the opening observation about husbands’ power ran as follows:

The next Instance I shall produce, is the Case of Mr. Veezey, tryed at the Old Bailey, where it was proved that he confined his wife for some Years in a Garret, without Fire, proper Cloathing, or any of the Comforts of Life; that he had frequently Horse-whipt her; that her Sufferings were so great and intolerable, that she destroyed her wretched Life by flinging herself out at the Window.

But as there was Bread found in the Room, which, though hard and mouldy, was supposed sufficient to sustain Life; and as it was not thought that he pushed her out at the Window himself, he was acquitted, and that Complaint of her Sufferings served only to instruct Husbands in the full Extent of their despotick Power.

She returned to the case briefly later in the work:

I must here take Notice, that I have related the Case of Mrs. Veezey, as I found it in one of the publick Prints, I therefore don’t take upon my self to say that this Case is truly stated, ’tis possible some material Circumstance may be omitted: However I was determined to insert it, though upon no better Authority, because I should be glad to know, supposing the Case to have been exactly as ’tis here related, what could have been done to him?

While Chapone’s summaries of the other cases are anonymous, in this one, she provides enough detail to let us find the report on the matter in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, now available online.[3] There one can read at greater length the desperately sad story of Mary Vezey’s last days in a Stepney garret in December 1732, long locked away and abused by a husband to whom the law had given great power and against whom it gave her no meaningful remedy. One modern historian has noticed the case (though not the connection to Chapone), though she raised it to discuss the limits on patriarchal violence, as neighbours and a beadle did express concerns about Mary and disapprove of her husband’s actions. But that husband, Corbet Vezey, seemed not much bothered by neighbours’ disapproval; the only constraint that mattered to him was that of the law. ‘Damn you, for a Bitch’, he was quoted as saying to Mary, ‘if it was not for the Law I would murder you.’ Since she ultimately killed herself, though, a jury deemed him safe from the law’s sanctions.

Detail from ‘The Harlowe Family, from Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa”‘ by Joseph Highmore

The law barred a husband from killing his wife, but not from most any other abuse of her person or property. A husband was supposed to provide his wife the necessaries of life, true. A battered wife could try to get a local justice of the peace to issue a recognizance, or bond, to secure her husband’s better behaviour. Some women could arrange equitable settlements before marriage to give them some protection thereafter. But a wife could not legally free herself or her property from her husband’s control.[4] It was the law’s failings, more so than those of individual men, that served as Chapone’s focus. She described various frauds and deceits by men on the make who married women for their wealth then left them penniless or dead through desperation. Chapone acknowledged that such frauds were ‘no part of the law itself, yet they are practicable in consequence of the law’. So, too, with domestic violence: by giving a husband ‘sole and despotic dominion’ (in William Blackstone’s famous words) over a woman’s goods, law also effectively gave him despotic dominion over her person. Wives were not their husbands’ property, but with no control over possessions of their own, they had little more recourse than if they were.[5] We might not fix all human failings, Chapone noted, but we can presumably fix the law and use it to guide people to better behaviour, not worse.

Chapone might have read about Mary Vezey’s death and Corbet Vezey’s outrage of a trial in the published Proceedings of the Old Bailey, or perhaps in the 1734 edition of the Select Trials at the Sessions House-House, a collection of ‘useful and entertaining’ cases gathered from the Proceedings for occasional publication. Or perhaps she learned of it from the short notice that appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine, in turn drawn from the published Proceedings.[6] The migration and various uses of Mary Vezey’s story offer an example of the power of the popular press in the early eighteenth century in constructing and contributing to a public sphere of informed debate – one that fostered and included evidence of women’s political consciousness.[7] Media reports could be driven by commercial interests and might seek to sensationalize and to entertain from the misery of others. But they might also do more. Chapone recognized such reports as double-edged swords, ones that might on the one side defend the despotic power of husbands but which might also, potentially, cut complacency to the quick and thereby prompt reforms of the laws.


Images:

Cover Image: ‘Pamela is Married’, from the series of paintings done by Joseph Highmore (1743-4), based on scenes from Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), courtesy Tate Britain, shared by Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).

Excise riot image: from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 4 (1865), courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from Joseph Higmore’s The Harlowe Family, from Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” (1745-47), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Notes:

[1]  Jacqueline Broad, “’A Great Championess for Her Sex”: Sarah Chapone on Liberty as Nondomination and Self-Mastery’, The Monist 98.1 (2013), 77-88 at 78. See also Broad, ‘Women on Liberty in Early Modern England’, Philosophy Compass 9.2 (2014), 112-22; Clarissa Campbell Orr, ‘The Sappho of Gloucestershire: Sarah Chapone and Christian Feminism’, in Bluestockings Now! The Evolution of a Social Role, ed. Deborah Heller (Ashgate, 2015), 91-110; Barbara J. Todd, “’To Be Some Body”: Married Women and The Hardships of the English Laws’, in Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition, ed. Hilda L. Smith (Cambridge, 1998), 343-61, though still treating the authorship as unknown; Margaret Hunt, Women in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Routledge, 2009). See also Susan Paterson Glover’s introduction and edition, The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives (Ashgate, 2018) and ‘Further Reflections upon Marriage: Mary Astell and Sarah Chapone’, in Feminist Interpretations of Mary Astell, ed. Penny Weiss and Alice Sowall (Penn State University Press, 2016), 93-110. A modern facsimile reprint is included in Legal Treatises, intro. Lynne A. Greenberg (Ashgate, 2005), vol. II. The attribution of the work to Chapone comes from Ruth Perry and Janice Thaddeus; see Perry’s introduction to George Ballard, Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, ed. Ruth Perry (Wayne State University Press, 1984).

[2] Quoted in Broad, ‘Championess’, 82, from The Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty-Three will be Ever Memorable for the Effectual Opposition Made by the Citizens of London Against the Scheme for an Excise Upon Wine and Tobacco (1733), 43.

[3] All now made available on the spectacularly useful The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913 (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 24 March 2012), produced by Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard, Jamie McLaughlin, et al. For this particular case, see reference t17320114-12.

[4] On intimate partner violence in these years see, e.g., Margaret Hunt, ‘Wife Beating, Domesticity and Women’s Independence in Eighteenth-Century London’, Gender & History 4.1 (1992), 10-33; Elizabeth Foyster, Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1875 (Cambridge, 2005); and works by Joanne (Bailey) Begiato, including Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800 (Cambridge, 2009) and ‘Marital Cruelty: Reconsidering Lay Attitudes in England, c. 1580-1850’, History of the Family 18.3 (2013), 326-42. Jennine Hurl-Eamon discusses bonds for good behaviour in ‘Domestic Violence Prosecuted: Women Binding Over their Husbands for Assault at Westminster Quarter Sessions, 1685-1720’, Journal of Family History 26.4 (2001), 435-54.

[5] One often reads that married women were considered property at law; they were not, though enough similarities existed perhaps to excuse the conflation as a convenience. Patricia Crawford examined the subject in ‘Women and Property: Women as Property’, Parergon 19.1 (2002), 151-171. See also Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), esp. 232-33: ‘Many men would have liked to regard women as property in and of themselves; but while married women’s legal disabilities put them in the same category with idiots, convicted criminals and infants, they were never legally classed with chattels. Nonetheless, there are ways in which women were treated as a form of property…’

[6] In addition to the report in the Proceedings and in The Ordinary’s Account, reports appeared in The Gentlemen’s Magazine, or, Monthly Intelligencer, vol. 2, p. 584, and in Select Trials at the Sessions-House, III (1734), 303-17.

[7] On this subject, see especially David Lemmings, ed., Crime, Courtrooms and the Public Sphere in Britain, 1700-1850 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012) and David Lemmings and Claire Walker, eds., Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Robert B. Shoemaker explores the accuracy (and contemporary perceptions of the accuracy) of the Proceedings in his article, ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of British Studies 47.3 (2008), 559-80.

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