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Blogs From the archive

A short history of ‘conscious uncoupling’

3 April 2014

9:49 AM

3 April 2014

9:49 AM

There have been some rocky relationships in the news this year. As well as Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s conscious uncoupling, world leaders have also had problems. Vladimir Putin’s divorce has just been finalised, and the newly single Francois Hollande this week welcomed his ex-girlfriend Segolene Royal to the French cabinet.

So, first of all some advice from a 1951 Spectator, about how to be happily married. Hugh Lyon, then chairman of the National Marriage Guidance Council, was rather strict:

‘The real trouble about people who want to be happily married is that they don’t start soon enough. It is not just a matter of taking thought before getting engaged, nor even of being properly educated for family life. The first essential is to take the precaution to be born into a really happy home, with parents whose life together flows strong and clear beneath the little flaws and flurries of occasional irritations; and the second is to be oneself the right sort of person, with those native qualities of sympathy and sensitiveness which no external influences can create nor altogether suppress.’

Not to do himself out of a job, he does go on to mention some practical steps for those who didn’t get started at birth. In 1828, before the days of the National Marriage Guidance Council and legal divorce, a man called John Nough ‘was convicted of horse-stealing, but recommended to mercy on account of the character of his wife, who threatened to poison him if he did not fetch home a horse’. If only the wife had had this French mother’s advice to her daughter, which the Spectator quoted it after it came up in a court case.

‘Get up early in the morning, that is to say, seven o’clock, or half past seven at the latest: arrange your hair, and put a little gum into the curls, that they may remain firm during the day; then put on long stays, and a plain but neat gown, that sits well, and which suits your face and figure…Then pay great attention to your household—work at useful things—spend no money in follies—do not make too free with your husband’s pupils—do not lend money without his consent, and never put yourself into a passion. One thing, of which I never yet ventured to speak to you, is, that without your perceiving it, you have a great fondness for strong liquors, which get into your head and heat your imagination; pray think of this fault, my dear girl, and correct it.’

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The gum in the curls is the matter of the first importance, the Spectator noted drily.

We don’t know what became of the French woman’s daughter, but can only hope her marriage ended better than that of the Browns of Portsmouth in 1865. When James Brown got dropsy and became incapacitated, his wife grew tired of looking after him, ‘and at last she tried to accelerate the arrival of her good fortune. She commenced a system of leaving him all day untended, unable to move, and without food or drink. A neighbour heard her as she returned ask her husband in angry surprise, “What, ain’t you dead yet?”’

She was keen to get the insurance money on her husband’s death, but she didn’t want to murder him. Her next move was to order a coffin.

‘He was then heaved still alive into the coffin… She heaped salt upon the living body of her husband, as she would…have heaped it upon a corpse. The single object was hurry—to be ready when the time came, and to this end she would not even wait for death to add the salt which would preserve the corpse.’

This woman is a rare example of a person for whom death held no sanctity, the article concluded almost in a hushed whisper. ‘It is as if a murderer had chosen the body of his victim for a pillow.’

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