Over the course of the last twenty-four posts published on this blog, I’ve established beyond reasonable doubt that Derbyshire-born dentist Joseph Boden committed bigamy when he married my great-great-aunt Elizabeth Robb in 1841. And I’m fairly certain that Elizabeth herself became a bigamist in the following year, when she married piano teacher and music hall performer Edmund Vineer. This means that Vineer also committed bigamy when he went on to marry Sarah Eliza Plucknett in 1855.
But why bigamy? What motivated these three early Victorians to break the law, even if (as seems likely) they managed to escape discovery and legal retribution? In an article on bigamy and cohabitation in Victorian England, social historian Ginger Frost argues that many couples, particularly in the working class, entered bigamous unions throughout the nineteenth century, as a way of circumventing the period’s restrictive marriage and divorce laws. According to Frost:
Most communities accepted these unions if they followed certain norms. The bigamist had to have a good reason to have left his or her spouse, had to have been honest with the second spouse, and had to be able to support multiple families. Within these parameters, neighbours and friends accepted illgeal marriages, following in a long tradition of self-marriage and self-divorce.
And in a review of Frost’s book Living in Sin: Cohabiting as Husband and Wife in Nineteenth-Century England, Tanya Evans states:
Women sometimes left their first husbands because they were violent or because they needed to find somebody to support them and their children. Many individuals traded legality for happiness without losing sight of the concept or ritual of marriage and while continuing to use the labels ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Subsequent unions were sometimes, but not always, more successful and happier than the first.
Not only was bigamy common in Victorian England – Frost claims that the 5,000 or so cases that came to trial between 1857 and 1904 represented only about 1 in 5 of actual bigamous relationships – but it was also a familiar trope in the literature of the period. In her book The Bigamy Plot: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian Novel, Maia McAleavey writes:
In hundreds of novels, plays, and poems published in Victorian Great Britain, husbands or wives thought dead suddenly reappear to their newly remarried spouses. In the sensation fiction of Braddon and Collins, these bigamous revelations lead to bribery, arson, and murder, but the same plot operates in the canonical fiction of Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, and Hardy.
How does this help us to understand the actions of my ancestors and their partners? If bigamy was a means of escaping an unhappy marriage at a time when divorce was almost impossible, except for those with means or power, then how does that explain the behaviour of Joseph Boden, Elizabeth Robb and Edmund Vineer?
Joseph Boden married Georgiana Westbrook towards the end of 1838, and then married Elizabeth Robb, just over two years later in February 1841, despite the fact that Georgiana was still alive and living in the couple’s home. Something must have gone wrong with that marriage very quickly and caused Joseph to leave it, since there is no evidence that he returned to Georgiana after his marriage to Elizabeth. Given Elizabeth’s own later bigamy, and the little we know of her married life with Joseph, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that Joseph was the problem: that he was simply a bad husband, and that Georgiana wanted rid of him. The fact that she was able to live on independent means without him implies that she didn’t need his income, as well as suggesting that, just possibly, he may have married Georgiana for her money. What we know of Joseph’s later life hints that he racked up debts, and that this may have been a reason both for Georgiana wanting him to leave, and for the separation from Elizabeth that happened towards the end of both their lives.
As for Elizabeth, presumably she knew none of this when, as an innocent twenty-year-old, she married Joseph in 1841. However, if she is indeed the same Elizabeth Robb who bigamously married Edmund Vineer a year later, then (like Georgiana) she must have seen through Joseph quite quickly. Did she soon discover that he already had a wife, or was it some other aspect of his behaviour that disillusioned her?
Why did Elizabeth marry Edmund Vineer? If it was to get away from Joseph, then why was she back with him nine years later, unless that was a respectable front to fool the census officials and other authorities in a censorious age? One imagines that this young music teacher, perhaps someone she had met before she married Joseph, provided a refuge when Elizabeth’s marriage to Joseph quickly turned sour. The big question here of course is: how much did Edmund know? Was he aware that Elizabeth was already married, but was sufficiently attracted to her to take her in and to provide a respectable veneer (if you’ll pardon the pun) to their cohabitation?
Alternatively, was it his discovery of her bigamy that caused Edmund to disavow his marriage to Elizabeth, so that by 1851 he would be telling census officials that he had never been married? Or was it that, after the initial excitement of an illicit affair, the love between Edmund and Elizabeth also cooled? Or did Elizabeth simply decide to return to Joseph, responding to a call of marital duty, or family pressures, or a promise by her first husband to mend his ways?
As for Edmund, he simply swept his marriage to Elizabeth under the carpet and moved away from London to start a new life. I doubt if he ever told his second wife Sarah Eliza about his entanglement with Elizabeth, and neither his bigamy, nor that of Elizabeth and Joseph, seem ever to have been exposed in the public prints. All of Edmund’s subsequent appearances in the press are reviews of his music hall appearances. As for Joseph, the original bigamist in this unhappy triangle, the only time he was mentioned in the newspapers was when he died.