The Chris Huhne / Vicky Pryce case raises some interesting questions about marriage, crime and morals. Before the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870, married women could not own property – after marriage, de facto everything belonged to their husbands. It followed that they could not run up debts and some enterprising ladies wrought their revenge by exercising this loophole in the law! Spinsters and widows could, however, hold wealth in their own right. Wealthy male landowners and other magnates would sometimes devise ingenious trusts and make provisions in their wills for married daughters, so that their husbands could not get their hands on all the cash. Even so, it does make you wonder why any woman of substance consented to marry! At the moment I’m reading Wylder’s Hand, by Sheridan Le Fanu, a mid-nineteenth century crime novel that tells how a beautiful heiress was unscrupulously passed around by several men in her extended family so that each could benefit from her wealth.
In the past, as The Taming of the Shrew illustrates, husbands were expected to be allowed to shape their wives’ views and opinions. Women, economically dependent and physically weaker in eras when even aristocrats would resort to physical force to subdue them, were always guilty if they lost their ‘virtue’. Richardson’s Clarissa died after she was seduced; Hardy’s Tess killed her lover in what nowadays would be called a crime of passion and paid for it with her life.
Until our own times, women have mostly drawn the short straw – though not always. Some, like the Wife of Bath, have prevailed over men through sheer strength of character. However, I imagine that it is because women have habitually been the underdogs of matrimony that laws of ‘spousal privilege’ were conceived. Ostensibly, these were meant to promote marital harmony, but it is also rather self-evidently true that wives, whether because of collusion or coercion, are unlikely to ‘shop’ their husbands. If the court could not rely on their testimony, it was best not to ask for it in the first place.
Today, at least in countries where girls and boys receive a similar education, women have more or less gained equality of opportunity and, unless they are in abusive relationships, there is no question of their having to agree with their husbands’ opinions. Some famous marriages have been built on successfully ‘agreeing to ‘disagree’: that of Denis and Edna Healey, for example. Can a woman of formidable intellect who has a high-profile career in her own right really be coerced by her equally high-profile husband into breaking the law and compromising her own moral integrity because he asks her to? I don’t have the answer to that. Thinking of my own husband, I am convinced that he would not have asked in the first place. But if he had ….?