Nuptiae Sacra; or an Inquiry into the Scriptural Doctine of Marriage and Divorce [with] Thoughts on the Propriety of Preventing Marriages Founded on Adultery
London: J. Wright; Philanthropic Reform, 1801; 1800.
London: J. Wright; Philanthropic Reform, 1801; 1800. First editions. Two pamphlets bound together in modern quarter calf over marbled boards with morocco label to spine. Measuring 203 x 120mm and both collating complete: , 136; 27, [1, blank]. Toning throughout both tracts, with closed tears to pages 69-70 and 77-80 with no loss of text; contemporary pencil annotations throughout the first tract documenting one reader's responses to the controversial claims. Numbers 2 and 4 in ink to headers of each title suggest these were part of a larger compilation of legal tracts (likely the set of four that were offered for sale in the 1923 Walpole Galleries sale, which bear matching marks). Each scarce, OCLC reports approximately 20 copies of the first title and ESTC locates 3 copies of the second title; they are the only examples currently in trade.
Two scarce pamphlets engaging in a longstanding debate about whether, how, and when divorce should be socially and legally acceptable. These two take up the issue of women's sexual agency, and Thoughts on the Propriety specifically espouses the notion that women who have engaged in adultery should not be allowed to divorce an existing spouse in order to marry a man with whom they've been unfaithful. Biblical justifications for this ban are presented throughout; but the hypocrisy woven into the argument makes it clear that its author is manufacturing a problem in order to punish and shame the few women for whom this circumstance even exists.
Marriages, at the time, could only be dissolved through divorce in an Act of Parliament; thus, divorces were only available to the titled and the wealthy. Additionally, at the time of Thoughts on the Propriety's publication in 1800, no woman had ever successfully petitioned Parliament for divorce and been granted one. This landmark would come in 1801 (the year of publication for Nuptiae Sacra), when Jane Campbell successfully petitioned to divorce Edward Addison on the grounds of abuse. "Of the 314 divorce Acts issued before 1857, all but five were initiated by men. Of the five women who petitioned for divorce, Jane Campbell was the first to successfully unbind herself from her husband" (History of Parliament). Whether the author of Thoughts anticipated such a ruling or not, it is clear that the issue at stake was not so much women gaining divorces as women more openly at the turn of the century engaging in pre and extra marital sexual relationships or even in some cases paid sex work. This was, in fact occurring; and it was the subject of numerous satires, erotic works, and religious diatribes dealing with cuckoldry and whoredom. The desire to shame and control women who expressed sexual subjecthood, and the impulse to position them as the sinning parties (rather than the men who equally engaged in the behavior with them) is telling and predicts how future divorce laws would unfold. (Item #5554)