lthough the references to contemporary Britain in Charles Lever's Davenport Dunn: A Man of Our Time (1857-59) chiefly take the form of references to Sadleir swindle and the Crimean War, it occasionally touches upon other political issues, such as the consequences of the 1801 Act of Union for his native Ireland, and other social issues like the 1857 Divorce Law. Prior to The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, divorces in Great Britain had been difficult to obtain and extremely expensive. The earlier law effectively barred all but the wealthiest from obtaining a divorce, even if they had sufficient rounds, something Dickens dramatizes in the situation of Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times (1854). In fact, when Lever wrote this chapter in the summer of 1857, the bill, which had passed through third reading at Westminster, would not come into force until 1 January 1858, so that much of the novel’s discussion of the terms of the new legislation was largely conjectural. The only provision that directly modified the legal grounds for divorce proceedings would have been adultery, which under the new act would no longer be illegal. But mere adultery, it turns out, would not have been sufficient grounds for Lady Grace to obtain a divorce, for as Paul Davis points out in his discussion of Dickens, “the act did not equalize the grounds for men and women, nor did it significantly broaden the grounds for divorce. It did not sanction divorce on grounds of incompatibility, the reason Dickens gave for his own domestic unhappiness [in 1857] (106).
Although the Aberdeen administration had first proposed to simplify divorces by creating a civil court, the Liberal leader, William Gladstone (1809-98) had vigorously opposed it when Lord Palmerston's administration re-introduced the legislation in 1855. Although a few prominent politicians like Gladstone believed such changes usurped the authority of the Church of England, the Anglican establishment in fact supported divorce reform: In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noted evangelical theologian John Bird Sumner, approved when it passed both the House of Lords and then the Commons, despite Gladstone's attempted filibuster. Lever’s presentation of the new divorce law in Chapter Ten as progressive shows both that he clearly approved of Palmerston's attempts at liberalization but that he believed that the new law’s grounds for divorce still too restrictive — as Dickens's case, much discussed in publishing circles, clearly demonstrated.
In the September 1857 instalment of Davenport Dunn, Lady Lackington, her friend Lady Twining, and the financial wizard Davenport Dunn discuss the provisions of the new Divorce Laws. When the hostess alludes to a topical subject of general interest to the aristocracy and the upper middle class, Lever uses the occasion to reveal Lady Twining's unhappy marriage and the plight of Dunn's rich and politically connected friend. Before Dunn’s friend Allington came into his inheritance, the materialistic Lady Grace rejected him simply because he was not wealthy enough; now, unhappily married to the wealthy Twining, she regrets her decision. The after-dinner conversation and Lady Grace's subsequent thoughts reveal that the new law offers no relief to Lady Grace, who suffers her husband's mental cruelty in silence. Having refused a once-poor man in order to marry wealth, she has discovered that Twining does not in fact provide the life of luxury she had expected.
Of the wretched life they led she drew a dreary picture: a mock splendour for the world, a real misery at home; all the outward semblance of costly living, all the internal consciousness of meanness and privation. He furnished houses with magnificence, that he might let them; he set up splendid equipages, that, when seen, they should be sold. "My very emeralds," said she, "were admired and bought by the Duchess of Windermere. It is very difficult to say that there is anything out of which he cannot extract a profit. If my ponies were praised in the park, I knew it was only the prelude to their being at Tattersall's in the morning; even the camellia which I wore in my hair was turned to advantage, for it sold the conservatory that raised it. And yet they tell me that if — they say that — I mean — I am told that the law would not construe these as cruelty, but simply a very ordinary exercise of marital authority, something unpleasant, perhaps, but not enough to warrant complaint, still less resistance.”
When Lady Lackington points out that Lady Grace’s husband’s actions “are cruelties . . . Mr. Twining's rank of life do not beat their wives,” Lady Grace sighs "No, they only break their hearts . . . and this, I believe, is perfectly legal." [Chapter X, "A Small Dinner," p. 83]
Lady Grace faints twice: first, during the initial discussion of divorce, suggesting how desperately she wishes to leave the parsimonious Twining, and again when Dunn reveals the name of his unhappy friend — Allington. That Dunn's friend suffers from unrequited love pains Lady Grace, who realizes that she is the cause. Dunn’s tale of unrequited love unknowingly comments upon a younger Lady Grace's materialistic nature. (Here, Lever might be making a case for liberalised divorce laws based on a growing incompatibility of temperaments as the couple grows older, an aspect of marital breakdown that the new act certainly did not take into account.) Unfortunately for Lady Grace, neither psychological cruelty nor incompatibility were acceptable grounds for divorce. As Mary Lyndon Shanley explains in her entry on divorce in Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, “Under the  act the grounds for divorce were a wife's adultery, and a husband's adultery if it was aggravated by cruelty, incest, bigamy, or bestiality. The grounds for judicial separation were adultery, cruelty, or desertion for two years” (223).
The extensive discussion of an important social issue continues Lever's shift from writing somewhat frivolous Irish action novels, such as his first popular triumph The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer (1839), and develops further Lever's psychological exploration of a loveless marriage in his previous novel, The Fortunes of Glencore (1857). Undoubtedly the more sombre mood of these later novels probably reflects both Lever's financial problems and his increasing anxiety about his son Charley who, after service in the Crimea, led a life of dissipation and drunkenness in London, dying at the age of just twenty-six as a complication of what present-day readers would recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Related Material: Victorian Divorce
- Doctors' Commons
- "No Escape to be Had, No Absolution to be Got": Divorce in the Lives and Novels of Charles Dickens and Caroline Norton
- The Origins of Victorian Divorce Law
- Art and Life: Dickens's Mistresses and Dickens's Heroines
Fitzpatrick, W. J. The Life of Charles Lever. London: Downey, 1901.
Lever, Charles. Davenport Dunn: A Man of Our Day. Illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne). London: Chapman and Hall, 1859, rpt. 1872.
Lever, Charles. Davenport Dunn: The Man of The Day. Illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne). London: Chapman and Hall, September 1857 (Part III).
Nayder, Lillian. The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell U. P., 2011.
Shanley, Mary Lyndon. "Divorce." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Sally Mitchell. Garland Reference Library of Social Science (Vol. 438). London and New York: Garland, 1988. Pp. 223-24.
Stevenson, Lionel. Dr. Quicksilver: The Life of Charles Lever. New York: Russell & Russell, 1939, rpt. 1969.
Sutherland, John. "Davenport Dunn." The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford U. P., 1989. Page 172.
Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. New Y,ork: Knopf, 1991.
Last modified 5 August 2019