This is the fascinating and true story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, who was the richest heiress in Georgian England; it details her life and her great many mistakes, particularly her disastrous marriage to the violent and dishonest Andrew Robinson Stoney and her courage in escaping him and achieving a divorce and being independent at a time when this was unthinkable for a woman. She certainly had an extremely remarkable life and I had to keep reminding myself that this was actually a true story as it almost seemed too far-fetched to be real.

I found this book interesting to read and admired the research that must have gone into the book and the author’s devotion to the subject. It did feel a little like a history lesson rather than a novel, but was a very interesting history lesson and fascinating to read accounts of true occurrences.

I was undecided about my judgement of Mary Eleanor; I did feel sorry for her and how she suffered at the hands of Stoney but she did make many foolish mistakes and I struggled to understand how such an intelligent and educated and determined woman with a very modern and independent approach to life for that time could have found herself in that situation, particularly with all her late father’s efforts to safeguard her against just such an occurrence. I also felt sad for the fact she was alone in her plight with no help or support or sympathy from friends or family or servants or the English public even though they were all aware of how she was being treated. However, although some of this lack of support was due to the attitudes at that time in history regarding a woman’s place in a marriage, it was also due to the mistakes she made and her behaviour that had disgusted and upset the public. I did like and admire Mary Eleanor more when she made her escape from Stoney and the reader is shown her resolve and determination and courage. I also found this a very exciting part of the book to read, as she began to slowly gain support from her maid and then others and her escape seemed at last to become a real possibility.

I was more decided in my feelings for Mary Eleanor’s children as I felt extremely sorry for them; they always seemed to be neglected and with no attention (although I realise this was a time when the accepted view was to use wet nurses and boarding schools). Mary Eleanor seemed to either openly dislike them (such as with her eldest) or was content to leave them with family members while she attended parties. Later, they had to endure living with Stoney, then they were denied all access to their mother, then later still they were sent to live with their uncle. All these must have been hugely distressing changes in their lives and they must have been very miserable and confused.

As with all such accounts of women’s place in history it is fascinating to contrast the difference between women’s rights then and now and difficult to comprehend how they were so unequally treated with all their property and money becoming the absolute ownership of their husband, as indeed the woman herself became absolutely owned by and completely submissive to him, and it being accepted that the husband could ‘chastise’ his wife and have mistresses. It was also very hard to appreciate how society could disapprove of Mary Eleanor leaving Stoney but not disapprove of Stoney for his cruel behaviour, and that the eventual help Mary Eleanor benefited from didn’t come from powerful people in her own class but came from her servants at their great personal risk.

Mary Eleanor was undoubtedly a remarkable woman and one that very much contributed to a change in how women were treated; basically being one of the first to refuse to tolerate her husband’s behaviour and by aiming to live independently, and challenging the law that tried to prevent this and winning. I think she was quite a heroine in her own way, although clearly no saint.

'The remarkable story of one woman's triumph over years of appalling violence and abuse' DAILY EXPRESS
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