The explosive affair that scandalised Victorian society

This review of Chloe Schama’s excellent debut book Wild Romance appeared inThe Sunday Business Post on May 30.

In February 1861, the Four Courts hosted a trial that gripped the public imagination, not only in Ireland but in Britain also. Thelwall v Yelverton was one of the most explosive cases ever to come before a Victorian court: William Charles Yelverton, an impecunious Irish aristocrat, stood accused of bigamy and of marrying and abandoning Theresa Longworth, a middle-class Catholic Englishwoman.

Yelverton and Long worth’s relationship, as the court heard in intimate detail, was anything but standard, buttoned-up Victorian fare. Having met aboard a steamer sailing from France to England in 1852, the pair began a clandestine, largely epistolary, affair that, Theresa testified in front of a rapt gallery, culminated in the couple marrying in secret some five years later.

The Irishman, who vehemently denied any previous marriage, had wed Emily Forbes, a widow, in 1858, an act that lead to the Four Courts trial.

The scandal inflamed the sensationalist press and inspired many novelists of the time, notably Wilkie Collins, but the affair was long forgotten by the time Chloe Schama, daughter of British historian Simon, stumbled across allusions to it while researching her thesis, in the British Library, in 2004.

Schama shares her father’s eye for a good yarn: from a footnote in an obscure scholarly article, the author, in her first book, spins a taut, confident tale of love, betrayal and the double standards of Victorian morality.

Wild Romance concerns itself primarily with Longworth, a character who – despite her quixotic mix of bravery and self-deception – cuts a noble and sympathetic figure throughout.

We learn how she fell for Yelverton while just 19, and pursued him from England to the Crimea and back again She finally joined him in Edinburgh, the setting for the first of their two unwitnessed marriages, an oath sworn over the Book of Common prayer.

Anxious to put her distinctly unusual marriage arrangements on a firmer footing, Longworth convinced her reluctant suitor to travel to Ireland where they were, putatively, wed a second time, this time with only an ill-informed Irish priest for company.

The Four Courts trial hinged on whether Yelverton was a Catholic or not, but while the Dublin court found in her favour, a team of judges in Edinburgh and, later, the Law Lords. dismissed the couple’s irregular Scottish marriage.

Women occupied an ambivalent position in mid-19th century Britain. On the one hand, they provided a much needed labour force for the industrial revolution, but they were expected to play the role of wife and child bearer with little rights of their own within marriage.

Longworth set out to challenge this orthodoxy: not long after her victory in Dublin, she published the first volume of her autobiographical novel, Martyrs to Circumstance.

Although poorly received – the Athenaeum called it ‘‘silly, dull and coarse’’ – Longworth spent the rest of her life writing. She died in obscurity in South Africa aged just 48, having spent the previous two decades detailing her travels across the globe.

Longworth described herself as ‘‘a rolling stone’’, and in less capable hands, her peregrinations, which make up more than half of this book, would have made for dull reading after the courtroom’s heady excitements.

Schama, however, skilfully weaves sources, styles and detail to produce a satisfying and immensely readable account of a woman who was ‘‘a harbinger of a new era’’.

‘‘Life, indeed, is a wild romance, if truly written,” Longworth once wrote. Her passions were her undoing but, almost 150 years later, Schama has done justice to an instructive tale of a woman who refused to give in to the constrictive demands of Victorian society.