Getting Rid of Those Pesky Unwanted Spouses

NOTE: This piece contains slight spoilers for Christmas with the Duchess by Tamara LeJeune, as well as for Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series.

divorceOh, divorce. It’s all too common these days, and many a protagonist in contemporary romances has an ex-husband or-wife. It can be a key point in the plot, but it’s not always dramatic or significant. It just is. But things haven’t always been this way.

Despite a few notorious historical examples, you don’t hear too much about people in England divorcing each other back in the day. For many — especially women — it wasn’t legally an option, or at least not a viable one without having your name dragged through the mud and your entire personal life made public.

So it isn’t too often that we see a character in a historical married to someone other than the hero or heroine. There just aren’t that many options for this situation to be resolved. Thankfully the number of virgin wives/widows has decreased over the years, though I’m sure all of us can think of at least one book where the heroine got an annulment based on non-consummation (whether this is legally legitimate is up for debate).

One of the anachronisms I dislike the most is casual treatment of divorce. In Christmas With the Duchess by Tamara Lejeune, this is the case — no consequences and a whole heck of a lot of lies. Sherry Thomas’s Private Arrangements also centers on the heroine’s petition for divorce. This is a much, much better book, and (if I recall) seems to be more realistic in its portrayal.

Of course, there’s a slightly more grisly option for an author to get rid of the unwanted spouse — kill them off. Lauren Willig has done this not once, but twice, in her Pink Carnation series. There are the doddering old dukes that have bought a blushing young virgin, whose hearts just can’t handle the pressure of consummation. There are the collateral victims along the way of a vendetta against one of the protagonists. And there are the husbands or wives who are actually enacting that vendetta. But there aren’t a whole lot of options beyond that, are there?

It sort of sucks when this happens. I don’t like it when people have to die to make it convenient for our hero and heroine to hook up. When the hero showed up with a wife in Christmas with the Duchess, I was actually shocked when she survived the book.

Which is better — offing an unwanted spouse, or putting our hero and heroine through an emotionally and reputationally damaging divorce that will affect the rest of their lives? Both options suck. Which is probably why authors avoid this for the most part.

It was probably more common for someone to marry for convenience, and find love outside the marriage. It’s what some characters are encouraged to do after falling in love with someone “unsuitable,” and it’s what Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famously had. But that’s not very satisfying as a romance, is it?

In this case, I prefer my stories a bit unrealistic. I don’t want either hero or heroine married when the book starts. I don’t want to see them to get divorced. And I don’t want someone killed off. Even if it limits the plot possibilities, I fully support authorial avoidance of unwanted spouses, especially in historicals. It’s a bit of a cop-out, perhaps, and makes things easier, but that is a lot more satisfying to me as a reader than the other options.

– Jane Granville

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19 Responses to Getting Rid of Those Pesky Unwanted Spouses

  1. On a complete tangent: while you can debate whether nonconsummation is a grounds for annulment, it’s really a question of fact, and the answer’s there for anyone who likes to read legal treatises.

    As far as I can tell, that’s pretty much me. I started to give the full explanation and then realized it was really, really long, and so I moved it to my blog.

    Short answer: no, nonconsummation is not legally a grounds for annulment.

    Long answer: but impotence can be presumed from nonconsummation that lasts through three years of cohabitation.

  2. Jane AAR says:

    Valid point, and the implications of the three year rule are interesting. Though it is worth noting that non-consummation IS a reason for annulment of a marriage in the Catholic Church. There’s no 3-year rule– either the marriage was physically consummated or not, and if it wasn’t then the marriage is invalid.

  3. AAR Sandy says:

    One of my favorite historical romance novels is Forbidden by Susan Johnson. The ducal hero is trying to get a divorce from his marriage of convenience to a wife from whom he’s been estranged for many years. She is, of course, an e-e-e-e-v-i-l romance novel bitch. The author goes into exhaustive detail about divorce laws in 19th century France and it was actually way more than I wanted to know. The author dealt with it realistically, down to every detail. I agree that we don’t want a lot of hurt ex-spouses or bodies littering the way, but the wife was completely unsympathetic and I thought the author did a great job of making our hero and heroine work for their HEA. It’s a rule breaker that really works for me.

  4. AAR Lynn says:

    While the bizarre plot contortions used to come up with some of the virgin widows of Romanceland annoy me, I have to admit that the “unwanted spouses” plotlines otherwise don’t usually bother me because I’ve seen them handled well. One of my favorite romances (and yes, I do consider it in my personal top 100) is To Love and To Cherish by Patricia Gaffney, which features a heroine who married before the hero comes along.

  5. JMM says:

    Honestly? I prefer NOT to have the spouse conveniently drop dead. It’s annoying to me.

    Deux Ex Machina – like finding out five pages from the end of the book that the hero/heroine is in fact the long-missing child of a nobleman so he/she will be instantly accepted by all who spurned him/her for being a commoner. (Who WANTS “friends” like this?)

    I’d rather have a somewhat messy ending. Or an ending where the hero and heroine run off to another country together to live in obscurity. Who says a happy ending MUST be with the two as Darlings of the Ton?

    • Susan/DC says:

      When we are introduced to the first spouse and s/he seems nice, it becomes very hard for me to finish the book — and sometimes I don’t. In Sophia Nash’s “The Kiss”, Anthony has loved the heroine for years. After he dies on their wedding night (at the beginning of the book, so not a spoiler), I felt so sorry for him I couldn’t continue. It was made easier in this case because I didn’t care for her writing style, but even if I had his death totally spoiled the mood. If the first spouse is wonderful but we never see him or know his inner thoughts because he’s died prior to the beginning of the book, it is much easier. I can then read the book as hopeful and romantic, in a way I can’t when I’m feeling sorry for a character who has died just as he achieved his heart’s desire.

      JMM: I’d rather have a somewhat messy ending. Or an ending where the hero and heroine run off to another country together to live in obscurity. Who says a happy ending MUST be with the two as Darlings of the Ton?

      JMM — if you want to read a book like this, read Nicola Cornick’s “One Wicked Sin”.

      • Jane AAR says:

        Susan/DC: When we are introduced to the first spouse and s/he seems nice, it becomes very hard for me to finish the book — and sometimes I don’t.In Sophia Nash’s “The Kiss”, Anthony has loved the heroine for years.After he dies on their wedding night (at the beginning of the book, so not a spoiler), I felt so sorry for him I couldn’t continue.It was made easier in this case because I didn’t care for her writing style, but even if I had his death totally spoiled the mood.If the first spouse is wonderful but we never see him or know his inner thoughts because he’s died prior to the beginning of the book, it is much easier.I can then read the book as hopeful and romantic, in a way I can’t when I’m feeling sorry for a character who has died just as he achieved his heart’s desire.
        JMM — if you want to read a book like this, read Nicola Cornick’s “One Wicked Sin”.

        That makes me think of Julia Quinn’s “When He Was Wicked,” or Carla Kelly’s Beau Cruseau. It’s sometimes hard when the hero/heroine was so in love with their late spouse, but I agree that it’s much better when we never actually encounter them, but in memory. I think that unless the book takes place over a long span of time, it’s hard to fit the whole mourning process in one book. I wouldn’t believe a character that falls in love with someone else quickly after their beloved spouse dies.

  6. JMM says:

    Also, I would prefer less Evvviiillllll Ex-spouses in contemporaries. It’s so annoying (to me) that just about EVERY hero/heroine conveniently has an ex who has no interest in her/his child, leaving said child to the heroine/hero to be a parent to.

    No child support for the hero to pay! The heroine can show how maternal she is and thus superior to the Evil woman the hero somehow was dumb enough to boink and knock up. No arranging weekends or scheduling times to meet at sports events! No grandparents! Just happy hero/heroine and child skipping through the daisy strewe fields without any baggage! Feh.

  7. thank you so much! The “non consummation” thing drives me batty!
    It is not grounds in English law, never has been, so although it might be possible to get a Catholic divorce (if you are Catholic, that is, and you can get one) you would still, in the eyes of the law, be married, and so you couldn’t marry again. Catholics in Georgian England weren’t allowed to enter Parliament, weren’t allowed to take official positions, so it was a marvel the Act was finally passed in the 1830′s.

    There was one case brought for divorce for impotence, which was valid grounds, and it makes fascinating reading. The husband had to prove he was impotent, not just with his wife, but with other women, otherwise it wouldn’t be grounds.

    Basically, in the Georgian era (up to 1830, when George IV died), a couple who wanted a divorce had to bring a case for Criminal Conversation, and then use the results of that case as grounds for divorce. If a woman took a lover and the lover was named in the Crim Con case, he could not afterwards marry the woman. That was why in the 20th century, there were so many “dirty weekends” in Brighton, when another party was set up so that the spouse could find him or her in bed with someone else!

    Each case for divorce was a separate case, funded by the party who brought the case, almost always the husband. That cost, especially since trials had to be judged by one’s equals, so aristocratic divorces had to be heard in the House of Lords.

    It took ages, and it ruined the wife, whether innocent or not. Annulments were even rarer, because that bastardised the children.

  8. dick says:

    Heck, I’ll bet there were plenty of lawyers who had figured out ways around most of the laws about annulment, especially if the parties involved were willling to prevaricate a bit. As for other ways of getting rid of unwanted spouses–whatever works, works.

  9. No, Dick, there weren’t. There was no way around certain things. If you wanted to live outside society, forego the influence and wealth, then yes. But right up to recent times divorce was a stain on the character, a sign of notoriety. Goes much deeper than the machinations of lawyers.
    Applying modern thinking and attitudes on to past times just doesn’t work and results in the neither-fish-nor-fowl kind of book, IMO.

    • Tee says:

      Lynne Connolly: But right up to recent times divorce was a stain on the character, a sign of notoriety.

      I can believe this wholeheartedly. Even as a young person growing up, I can recall the hush-hush of talk centering around a couple getting a separation, much less contemplating divorce. It just wasn’t thought of. And if it happened in one’s family sphere, it was even worse. So I can imagine how this would not have been the route to take, much less consider during much earlier times, especially for the woman.

      But “historical” romance authors these days think nothing of applying today’s thoughts and standards to those days of yesteryear. How many times have we seen the heroine utter words such as, “Well, at least I hope I’ve gotten pregnant, so that I’ll be left with some remembrance from him.” OMG—talk about unthinkable. That would have destroyed the woman and what person would want that? Even when I was a teen in high school, when we found out a girl was pregnant, she definitely was the talk of everyone (and I went to a very large public high school). Once she began showing or when the administrators found out, she had to quit school. There were no alternative learning options at that time either. If a historical character wants a memento, she would be better off cutting a lock of his hair! LOL

      So, whenever I see a historical romance story featuring a divorcee, the caution lights kick in for me. I’m just not sure it’s going to be as believable as it should be. And if it is, it may not necessarily qualify as HEA material (generalizing at that last statement of mine).

  10. dick says:

    @Lynn Connolly: I wrote of annulment. But, you know, when we look at the past we are influenced as much by our conception that we “know” history as we are by modern attitudes. History is much like gossip, in my thinking. What reaches our ears (or eyes, in this case) is all we have to go on–and even that we have to filter through the lens of whoever wrote the documents. In the cases of annulment, I think the persons who successfully got one through the machinations of a clever lawyer or simply by successfully lying probably wouldn’t write it down for posterity to read about.

  11. @dick. No such thing as a “quiet” annulment in this period. Marriages in the aristocracy were usually quiet, but everybody knew about them. Of course there’s a story to be written about a couple nobody knows is married – oh wait, I’ve read a couple of those, I think.
    Usually, the marriage became known, either by announcement or by the couple moving in together. In an age when inheritance was restricted to the legitimately born, marriage was vital. And that particular piece of law could be questioned in retrospect – so if not properly drawn up and witnessed could be questioned by grandchildren and great-grandchildren (they went way back in the Tichbourne case, for example).
    Marriage documents were recorded in the parish where the marriage took place, in the appropriate library of the Church and a copy would be held in the family archives. We are talking people of property here. Among the working class, and people with nothing to bequeath, it was much more casual.
    So yes, lying about a marriage taking place could be done, and has been done, but the possible threat of losing everything later on could be a severe one. And to think of a couple living their lives knowing their marriage wasn’t legal – horrifying, not the stuff of romance.
    An annulment had to go through two courts – church and state – to totally free the people involved, and there would be no hiding it or doing a “quiet” anything. Courts were not private places in this era. It had to be written down, or it didn’t count, and the people of the 18th century loved a good gossip.
    In the whole of the eighteenth century I think there was one annulment – maybe two. Under Anglican law they were incredibly rare. And not approved of by the upper classes, since they bastardised children of the union.
    Marriage was for children. Once they were produced, there was no reason why the parties shouldn’t go their separate ways, and no point in divorce. Even less in annulment.
    But by the Regency, there was a plethora of journals, gossip, letters, all kinds of things to inform us in detail about the attitudes and assumptions of people in the past. I’ve been reading them for a number of decades, and I’ve barely skimmed the surface
    And then there are the Parliamentary Acts, White Papers, and so on that show the ‘official’ thinking of the era.

    I’ve recently been watching a really great exposition of the complexities of getting a divorce in the Georgian era. The second series of “Garrow’s Law” is on British TV right now, and it makes great viewing. In this series, Garrow is implicated in a divorce, and is the named party in a crim. con. case, a particularly spiteful move, because that would bar him from marrying the woman involved, even after the divorce is finalised.

  12. chris booklover says:

    Lynne Connolly: Thanks for your excellent exposition of the law concerning marriage, divorce and annulment. Wallpaper historical romances are one of my pet peeves, and the main reason that they exist is because many readers do not grasp how different the law and social customs were in the past compared to today’s. Case in point: Ashley March’s recent novel Seducing The Duchess, in which the heroine asks her husband for a divorce and is willing to be named as the guilty party. There is no acknowledgment of (a) how difficult it would be to obtain a divorce; or (b) how devastating the social consequence of that divorce would have been for her. A duchess would never have sought a divorce unless her husband was abusive (which the hero, whatever his shortcomings, clearly was not) or she was already involved in a relationship with another man – and even in these cases it is doubtful whether she would have taken this step.

    We are not talking ancient history here. There is abundant evidence from a wide range of sources about the laws and customs concerning marriage and family in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is theoretically possible that a large number of secret annulments were granted and the evidence suppressed, but this is extremely implausible. The burden of proof is very much on those who wish to assert such a claim.

  13. NIkki says:

    The complications of being a rich somebody!

    As JMM mentions, there was another available marriage-ending avenue for the common/poor folks in the days before government identification numbers, wide-spread communication and the global village: one could run off to the colonies/Australia/etc., change their name and be “single again”. In C.S. Forester’s African Queen, Charlie has a wife “somewhere back in Canada”, but that doesn’t stop him from marrying Rose in Africa. (!)

    My reference books also mention that poor nobodies in England had another remedy: since wives were property, they could be sold in a quasi-livestock auction. Technically, this practice had no basis in law, but from at least the late 1600s to the early 1900s this was generally accepted as legitimate and binding. It is reported that the 2nd Duke of Chandos purchased his second wife (a chambermaid seeking to escape an abusive marriage) at an auction – now there’s a romance plot for you!

  14. JMM says:


    What about Scotland? They seem to have had different laws regarding divorce and remarriage historically.

  15. K Taylor says:

    a few comments to address the above:
    It is not true that the accused wife could not marry her Named Lover–It depended upon the act of parliament that was passed. Some did state you could not marry the named party, some did not.
    Case in POINT: Henry Paget, future Mq of Anglesey. he was Named as the guilty party(paid a Large sum to the injured husband) and still married his mistress.
    This was AFTER his wife got a SCOTTISH divorce from him(so to answer the question-yes, it was possible tho very unlikely for a woman to pursue a divorce.) Neither Wife nor Paget were Scottish. Henry set up “residency” in Scotland then got Caught with an unidentified woman(Mistress in a veil). Wife sued for and received divorce.
    the Morning Chronicle–Oct.10, 1810 stated:
    “It is well known that divorces are more easily obtained in Scotland than in this part of the Island. ….Nothing is more common in
    Scotland than the wife being the party complaining of her husband’s
    The laws were different in Scotland, a woman could bring suit against her husband with more liberal grounds than in England.(options: Adultery +/or Desertion). If you want to learn more about Scottish Divorces I highly recommend: Leah Leneman’s Alienated Affections.

    Now, The mistress(Charlotte) married Henry and eventually became a Marchioness, yes, there were people who did not allow HER into their home(he had no such limitations) but she was, despite the notoriety and “stain”, apparently reasonably happy with the results of her actions/choices.
    Now what happened to the poor 1st wife? a divorced woman? disgraced? all alone? cast out of society?
    Nope, she married the Duke of Argyll and tho her former sister-in-law(Henry’s sister) had no desire to socialize with her, the King had no problem with her attending his Drawing room.
    The Morning Chronicle–Aug.22, 1822
    King’s Drawing Room attendees: Duke AND Duchess of Argyle.
    However, it should be noted the Paget/Argyle situation was rare even among the rarity of English divorce.
    For those interested in learning more about English divorce. Lawrence Stone has a few books on the subject[Road to Divorce; Broken Lives; Uncertain Unions]. I don’t believe you can read these books without noticing that several of these divorces show signs of complicity. Yes, some women WERE willing to be the guilty party, to accept the shame, so they could be with their lover(or possibly just to NOT be married to their current spouse).
    That being said I AM SICK to death of romance novels which use the suggestion of or an actual divorce in their books because they do not understand the laws of the day and instead make it sound like it is a modern day-style process.

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