The Archive Spotlight series continues today with a post from Marissa Bolin, PhD candidate at the University of York. She tells us about her research visit to the British Library and what she uncovered there.
“Sacreed Promises and Engagements:” Mapping the Life of Johanna Dalrymple
My fascination with the 1811 Dalrymple v. Dalrymple trial arose from the examination of the legal context of Wilkie Collins’ 1870 novel Man and Wife. Collins recognizes the importance of the Dalrymple trial as background for the case between Anne Silvester and Geoffrey Delamayn when Sir Patrick claims that it is the “one case” where a Scottish marriage was “confirmed and settled by the English Courts.”[i] He links Anne Silvester and Geoffrey Delamayn’s marriage to the Dalrymple verdict when he clarifies that “[a]n English Court of Justice (sitting in judgment on the case I have just mentioned to Mr Moy) has pronounced that law to be good—and the decision has since been confirmed by the supreme authority of the House of Lords.”[ii] Reports by John Dodson and John Haggard as well as later references to the case in the 1868 The Report of the Royal Commission on the Laws of Marriage mark Dalrymple v. Dalrymple as the commencement for the debate for reformed ceremonial laws. The publicity that followed the case similarly served to educate the English population of the lack of formality of Scottish irregular marriages and sparked the debate to end the ways in which women fall victim to these inconsistencies.
Scotland’s marriage laws had few restrictions and caused a great deal of legal confusion. According to the 1868 Commission’s account of the requirements of marriage legality in Scotland, “[n]o form or ceremony, civil or religious, no notice before or publication after, no consummation or cohabitation, no writing, no witnesses even are essential to the constitution”[iii] of irregular marriages. Commissioners were astounded that so few requirements were needed to define “the most important contract which two private parties can enter into.”[iv] The obscurity of Scottish marriage laws led the Commission and recent historians such as Leah Leneman and Lawrence Stone to ask “what defined a marriage in Scotland?”[v] Scottish marriages could be separated into two categories—regular marriages and irregular marriages. It was Scotland’s protection of irregular marriages that caused great confusion.
The Report defines irregular marriages as then separated into two sections, per verba de praesenti and per verba de futuro, subsequente copula. Promises per verba de praesenti were a type of mock ceremony in which a couple would pronounce themselves married from that point forwards “without any ecclesiastical ceremony, parental consent, or physical consummation, provided the consent was notified in words of the present tense.”[vi] Such marriages could be proven through letters signed “wife” or “husband” or the testimony of a credible witness who had witnessed these terms verbally declared. On the other hand, per verba de futuro marriages are characterized by the presence of “a promise of future marriage without any present interchange of consent to be husband and wife, followed at a subsequent time by carnal intercourse.”[vii] Both variations of informal marriage led to a great deal of legal confusion.
It was this legal ambiguity, and the many women who were negatively affected by such obscure requirements for marriage, that led the Commission to focus on Scottish laws. The Dalrymple case provides one of the most well-known cases of Scottish irregular marriages at that time, and is referenced by the Report to support the Commission’s position that “writings, secretly exchanged between a gentleman and lady in Scotland, without the knowledge of any other person, were held by the English Court Matrimonial to have constituted a valid marriage.”[viii] Twenty letters written by Johanna Dalrymple were used as evidence. John refused to provide any letters that he received from Johanna, claiming that they were missing or have been destroyed. Johanna had luckily kept all the correspondences during their relationship, clearly aware of the uncertainties of Scottish marriages. Dodson asserts the significance of the letters presented by Johanna’s lawyers on the verdict, by stating that “[i]t is much more natural that they should be left in the possession of the lady, she being the party whose safety is the more special object of protection.”[ix] Married women were unable to represent themselves within marriage trials and yet it was their respectability and virtue that was on the line. Therefore, women’s possession of written evidence was of the utmost importance.
The Dalrymple case provides an extensive examination of the influence that women’s writings play in marriage laws of the period. The letters presented during the trial dated back to 1804, when John Dalrymple became acquainted with Johanna Gordon during his time as a Dragoon Guard in Edinburgh. John frequently visited her at her family home and in May began writing passionate letters declaring his love and hopes for their future together.[x] They had been acquainted for approximately one to two months prior to the start of their correspondences but few letters were of importance to the case due to the fact that verbal passionate discussions were most likely taking place. Thus, the letters presented during the trial were written after an irregular marriage had occurred, as revealed in letter No. 1, and secured proof of their marriage. The first letter recorded in the Dalrymple v Dalrymple case, entitled “A sacreed promise,”[xi] consists of both John and Johanna’s written agreements to marriage.
It is clear that at this point John and Johanna had consented to a marital union by the terms of Scottish irregular marriage per verba de praesenti. Because of John’s family and the fear of “being disinherited,”[xii] the marriage had to be an irregular one and kept in secrecy, not even known to Johanna’s family. John assured Johanna that she was his wife and, thus, obtained all the rights as his wife. These rights included his responsibility to pay for any purchases she wished to make, for he frequently assured her that, “I insist on your ordering every thing you want, and drawing on me for whatever money you stand in need of as it is but your right, and in accepting of it you will prove your acknowledgment of it.”[xiii] He also saw it to be her responsibility to perform all duties as his wife, such as sexual intercourse. The plaintiff stressed the importance of the consummation of marriage, as it remained a legal stipulation of marriage at the time. Although John would later deny that sexual intercourse occurred, the court agreed that his letters proved otherwise. The prosecution argues that his letters were “expressive of the most ardent and eager affection on his part, which can leave no room for the slightest doubt that he was at that time most devotedly attached to her person, and desirous of the pleasures connected with the enjoyment of it.”[xiv] At the end of July 1804, John was forced to leave Edinburgh and return to London because of his father’s suspicions of her relationship with Johanna.
Both John and his “Dearest Wife”[xv] continued to write to one another during this absence and after he was stationed in Malta in 1805. With less frequent letters, the death of John’s father in 1807, and his final return to England in 1808, the relationship between the couple became ultimately altered. Using John’s lawyer, Samuel Hawkins, as a transmitter of letters during this three year period, Johanna warns Hawkins that:
were he to think of forming any of the connexions that have been talked of [in gossip], or any connexion whatever, I will immediately come forward with my claims, which must put himself and the unfortunate woman in a most disagreeable situation […] I am convinced he will force me to strong measure ere long.[xvi]
On the 2nd of June 1808, she was forced to call her bluff after John marries a woman by the name of Laura Manners and, within a few days of the marriage, Johanna’s legal battle begins.
Johanna was able to convince the jury that a marriage had occurred and that John was legally responsible as her husband. As a result, John’s second marriage was annulled. Although Johanna and John Dalrymple were from thenceforth married, they agreed to live separately. Due to the fact that the Matrimonial and Divorce Act would not come into action for another 46 years, a legal divorce or separation was not possible.
Unfortunately, little is known of Johanna Dalrymple’s fate after the 1811 trial. My archival research at the British Library enabled me view the widespread distribution of trial reports on the Dalrymple court proceedings. It wasn’t until further research led me to the National Archives in Kew that I discovered an 1827 Inquisition of Lunacy of Johanna and the declaration of her insanity. It is unclear if Johanna self-admitted herself after years of legal and marital sufferings or if this inquisition was called for by John as a reasoning for divorce.
While I’ve had to pause further research into what happened to Johanna Dalrymple after her triumph in the 1811 trial and this 1827 Inquisition due to other research focuses, I fully plan to dedicate future research into uncovering the misfortunes of this legally symbolic woman of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Marissa Bolin is a doctoral candidate and tutor in the Department of English & Related Literature at the University of York. Her dissertation entitled “Women, the Law, and the Novel, 1838-1885: Representations of Bigamy, Property Law, Ceremonial Law, Divorce and Separation in the Victorian Novel” examines the use of women’s physical writing, such as letters, marriage certificates, and diaries within Victorian novels as a way of providing women’s testimonial and circumstantial evidence in the debate for marriage law reform.
[i] Wilkie Collins, Man and Wife ed. Norman Page (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995), 523.
[ii] Collins, Man and Wife, 523.
[iii] The Report of the Royal Commission on the Laws of Marriage (London: HMSO, 1868), 16.
[v] Leah Leneman, Promises, Promises: Marriage Litigation in Scotland 1698-1830 (Edinburgh: Nation Museums of Scotland Enterprises Ltd., 2003), xi.
[vi] John H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), 179.
[vii] The Report of the Royal Commission on the Laws of Marriage, 17.
[ix] John Dodson, A Report of the Judgment, Delivered in the Consistorial Court of London, on the 16th of July 1811, By the Right Honorable Sir William Scott, Chancellor of the Diocese, in the Cause of Dalrymple the Wife, Against Dalrymple the Husband (London: J. Butterworth, 1811), 66.
[x] Ibid., 1.
[xi] Ibid., 243.
[xii] Ibid., 253.
[xiii] Ibid., 245.
[xiv] Ibid., 69.
[xv] Ibid., 245.
[xvi] Ibid., 264-265.