Review – Wild Romance by Chloe Schama

This is an impressive debut by Chloe Schama, daughter of the famous historian, Simon Schama.  My historical intake is usually limited to fiction and I do feel the need to be entertained as well as educated. 

Certainly this is an entertaining, well written book.  The story of the courtship and “marriages” of Charles Yelverton and Theresa Longworth fascinated the Victorian public and was the inspiration for Wilkie Collins’ novel Man and Wife in which he criticised the state of marriage laws in the United Kingdom and how biased they were in favour of men.  Indeed their story seems quite fantastical at times and was sure to cause waves in a society where keeping a stiff upper lip was a prerequisite.

Theresa first encounters Charles on a cross-channel ferry, having spent the previous few years cloistered in a French convent to “finish” her education.  Coming from a trade background she seems a million miles from the aristocratic world of  Yelverton.  At times her pursuit of her beloved (tracking him down in the midst of the Crimean War, for example) seems bordering on obsessive, bunny-boiler behaviour.  They engage in an epistolary romance sending each other passionate letters, the contents of which end up being read aloud in court at a later stage – an early kiss and tell story.  Theresa who seems to be an intelligent, independent thinking woman is surprisingly gullible when it comes to accepting Charles’ excuses for not being able to marry her – he claims he will be disinherited.   Undeterred, Theresa proposes that she could be the breadwinner and support  him – a suggestion which would not go down well in Victorian society.

In the end, Theresa does succeed in getting her man, marrying him not once but twice!  According to Scottish common law at the time, Yelverton’s declaration of marriage vows sworn on the Book of Common Prayer in a poky room in Edinburgh, constituted a legally binding contract.  No witnesses were needed but Theresa still wanted the reassurance of another marriage, this time in a Roman Catholic church in Northern Ireland again with no official witnesses other than the priest officiating.  They never set up home together and not long afterwards Theresa hears about Yelverton’s marriage to a widow.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, Theresa takes Charles to court in Dublin where the marriage in Ireland is upheld but six years later her appeal in the House of Lords is defeated.  Not that any of these legal battles benefit her in the slightest and after some initial public sympathy she spends the remainder of her days travelling the world dabbling in public speaking, novel writing and journalism.  

Wild Romance is more about Theresa than Charles and thus provides an interesting insight into the powerlessness of women in Victorian society.  Theresa’s relentless pursuit of Yelverton does make her seem disturbing at times but you can’t help but admire her determination and courage. Fact is undoubtedly stranger than fiction!

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  1. Iris says:

    I do love reading (non)fictional accounts on the position of women through history. I have to admit that this sounds sort of confusing though..

  2. admin says:

    Iris, Theresa was acting more out of her own interests than out of some quest to further the emancipation of women but her case highlighted the inequitable nature of marriage laws and did inadvertently give women a stronger position. I think she was a rather confused lady!

  3. carol says:

    thanks for the review.
    going on my wishlist for sure. History is one of my favourites.


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