The Lady's Law


AN old law book published in 1732 did not promise much entertainment for a lazy summer afternoon, and The Lady’s Law would have returned to its dusty compeers in a neglected corner of the library if the following sentence had not caught my eye: “ Our old Laws and Customs relating to Women are many of them very merry, though the Makers of them might possibly be grave men.”

A lawyer who thought that there was just a possibility — a bare chance — that lawmakers might be serious minded was at least original, and the “very merry ” customs proved as irresistible a temptation to me as my author hoped that they would “to all Practisers of the Law and other Curious Persons.”

“All Women,” began the preface, “ in the eye of the Law, are either married or to be married.”

It is worth going back two centuries to hear such an encouraging doctrine, and it is certainly a contrast to that expressed in a recent graduation sermon at a well-known Woman’s College, where the senior class were assured that only twenty-five per cent of them might even dream of marriage.

Is it possible, by the way, that this pessimistic axiom accounts for the epidemic of Love-Letters with which the book market is afflicted ?

Are the Love-Letters of an Englishwoman, the Love - Letters of a Liar, and the Love-Letters of Balzac, Victor Hugo, the Brownings, and all the rest, only published in the vain hope of soothing that craving in the breast of the seventy-five per cent of college women who are warned that they need never expect to receive a personal love-letter ?

The Lady’s Law gives many proofs of the extraordinary change which has taken place in the position of women in the last two centuries, and in the popular view of marriage ; perhaps none is more striking than the statement that “whoever marries for Beauty, Riches, or other motives than those before mentioned ” (the Scriptural reasons) " are said to be guilty of a Crime though it be not expressly disallow’d by our Law.”

The position of a married woman was not very enviable in those days; she was subject to her husband absolutely, although he could not beat her except for “reasonable correction and chastisement ; ” neither could he sell her “Diamond and pearl chain,” if she had such a thing, nor her “ necessary apparel, ” but otherwise he had almost unlimited power over her. She might not “Submit to an Award, for the Submission is a free Act, and the will of a Feme Covert is subject to the Will of her Husband and so is not free.” If she was extravagant and borrowed money and “cloaths herself better than doth belong to her Quality, although this comes to the Use of the Baron, because his Feme ought to be cloathed ; yet because it is beyond her Degree, he is not chargeable with it.” In matters of household bills, however, where women “are allowed by their Husbands to be Housekeepers, and they are used to buy things upon Trust for the Household, the Husband shall be charged for them, for in such respect the Wife is as a Servant.”

In the reign of Charles II., Judge Hyde arguing on the subject of a man’s liability for his wife’s personal expenses said : “ It is objected that the Jury is to Judge what is fit for the Wife’s Degree, that they are trusted with the Reasonableness of the Price, and are to examine the Value; and also the Necessity of tne Things or Apparel. Alas, poor Man ! What a Judicature is set up here, to decide the private Difference between Husband and Wife ? The Wife will have a Velvet Gown and a Sattin Petticoat, and the Husband thinks Mohair is as Fashionable and fitter for his Quality: The Husband says that a plain Lawn Gorget of 10s. pleaseth him and suits best with his Condition; but the Wife takes up at the Exchange a Flanders Lace or Point handkerchief at £40. A Jury of Mercers, Silkmen, Sempsters and Exchange-men are very excellent and indifferent Judges to decide this Controversy : It is not for their Support to be against the Wife, but to be for her, that they may put off their braided Wares to the Wife upon Trust, at their own Price and then sue the Husband for the Money.”

How constant is Human Nature, and to-day how many a husband with an extravagant wife thinks “Mohair is as Fashionable and fitter for his Quality.”

The Law was not always consistent in its defense of a husband’s purse against his wife’s encroachments. In one case where a man’s heirs sue his widow for goods and money purloined from her husband during his lifetime, “Egerton, Chancellor, denied Relief. He said he would not relieve the Husband were he Living, for he sate not there to give Relief to Fools and Buzzards, who could not keep their money from their Wives.” Yet, in another case, where the wife of an improvident husband, “ by her great frugality, ” had saved a large sum of money for the good of her children, the money was taken from her as “being dangerous to give a Feme Power to dispose of her Husband’s Estate,” although it is difficult to see why this husband was less of a Fool and Buzzard than the other.

The Law is liberal enough to secure the “necessary apparel ” of a married woman to her even after her husband’s death, and goes so far as to pronounce that if a husband has given his wife “a Piece of Cloth to make a garment, and dies, although it was not made up in the Life of the Husband, yet the Wife shall have it.” Among a woman’s “ Bona Paraphernalia, ” a chain of diamonds and pearls worth £400 has been held “necessary apparel” to an earl’s daughter; although a dissenting opinion maintained that they were “not necessary for her, but only convenient.”

Breach of promise cases and suits for non-support must have been astonishingly easy in those days if fashionable, for the Law held that: “If a Man say to a Woman, I do promise to marry thee, and if thou be content to marry me, then kiss me or give me thy Hand ; and if the other Party do kiss or give her Hand accordingly, Spousals are contracted;”

A marriage was even held to have been contracted when no words were said: “A Ring is solemnly delivered and put on the Woman’s fourth Finger by the Party himself, and she willingly accepts the same and wears it, the Parties are presumed to have mutually consented to be Man and Wife, and so have contracted Matrimony, altho’ they used not any Words.”

A nice distinction is made by the Law in regard to presents made before marriage. “When Jewels, etc., are given as a pledge of Future Marriage between two Persons, there is an implied Condition annexed, that if Matrimony do not ensue, the Things may be demanded back and recovered. Though, according to our old Books, if the Man had a Kiss for his Money, then the one Half of what was given could only be recovered, and the other Half was to be the Woman’s own Goods; but the Female is more favoured, for what so ever she gave, were there kissing or no kissing in the Case, she may demand and have all again.”

The difference of fifty per cent ad valorem seems rather a high estimate of the discrepancy in value between a man’s kiss and a woman’s, and appears to prove conclusively the author’s statement that woman is indeed “a Favourite of the Law. ”