“In Utter Disregard of the Duties of a Husband and a Father”: Gendered Notions of Marital Cruelty in Victorian Glasgow

Ashley Dee, Open University

Histories of marital cruelty in Britain have predominantly focused on the English experience. Police court records, Divorce Court files (opened in 1858), and cases heard by the ecclesiastical courts have been qualitatively interrogated to investigate personal violence in marriages. These sources, or perhaps the way they have been analysed, have left historians unable to adequately recover the non-physical behaviours that were considered unreasonable in marriage. In Scotland, divorce and separation have been legal solutions for marital breakdown since 1564. In my research, I have converted the data from these written separation and divorce cases into a database to enable me to quantitatively analyse the sources. To secure a separation the pursuer had to prove that remaining in the marriage threatened their life, the conditions for a divorce were adultery or desertion for upwards of four years. However, the courts took the time to listen to many more complaints that went far beyond those specific legal requirements. Using databases, I have been able to count the marital cruelty more closely and observe a broader range of abuses in Victorian, Glaswegian marriages than other historians have identified elsewhere. I have also been able to distinguish cases by economic class, enabling me to provide a cross-class analysis of marital cruelty. By accompanying this quantitative analysis with detailed qualitative analysis of the original records, I have been able to get a much clearer understanding of attitudes towards marital cruelty at different levels of society. In this paper I will address some of the behaviour types from my database that had gendered foundations, such as economic neglect, interference with household management, or unfit parenting. Doing so enables me to explore how understandings of femininity and masculinity shaped people’s opinions of unreasonable marital behaviour at all levels of society.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 48. Cruelty, Theft, Murder: Gender and Emotion from British and Australian Legal Data, 1850s-1950s