She was shunned by society and killed herself in shame after having an affair in the 19th century – but today's Anna Karenina would have lived happily ever after with a wealthy divorce settlement
13:19 GMT, 7 September 2012
The lavish film of Anna Karenina out this week starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law shows how in the 19th century, women were vilified and shunned by society if they had an affair. In Tolstoy's classic novel, Anna is left desolate after she gives into her feelings for the dashing Count Vronsky while trapped in a loveless marriage to Karenin.
Her fate is a far cry from the experience of modern day women who may stray from their husbands. As sexual historian HALLIE RUBENHOLD, writes below, not only would the 21st century Anna have been able to conduct an affair easily and discreetly, she would also have been able to take her husband to the cleaners in the divorce courts after her infidelity was exposed…
When we dream of love affairs, it’s often the images of a more romantic past that come to mind. But hidden behind the swirling silk gowns, candlelit rooms and secret love letters, lies the horrible truth of what it was like to conduct an affair in the nineteenth century. The latest bodice buster feature film, Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law, reveals just how desperate and miserable such clandestine relationships could be for women.
Dangerous liaison: In Anna Karenina, Anna (played by Keira Knightley) has an affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that leads to her downfall. She would have had a very different experience today
The big budget film retells Tolstoy’s classic story of Anna, trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man, who finds herself falling in love with the dashing Count Vronsky played by Aaron Johnson. After giving into her passions, she finds herself disgraced, shunned by her peers and eventually abandoned by her lover. Having taken life’s greatest gamble and lost, disconsolate Anna ends her life by throwing herself in front of a train.
But let’s re-imagine Tolstoy’s tragic
tale in the 21st century – a deeply unhappy Anna Karenina begins an
affair with the dashing Count Voronsky, a man she might have met online.
She could either happily continue in her double life with little chance
of ever being discovered, or having learned that she is neither trapped
in her marriage nor demonised by society for aspiring to love, she
divorces the stodgy, ill-suited Karenin, who settles a third of his
wealth on her. Anna buys nice pad in a swanky part of St Petersburg,
gets custody of her children in a no fault split and lives happily ever
after with Vronsky.
But that wouldn’t have made such a dramatic film, would it
Disgraced: Keira's character loses everything when her infidelity is uncovered but in the 21st century she would have received a comfortable divorce settlement
Loveless marriage: Jude Law plays Anna's ill-suited husband in the film
If anything, Tolstoy’s story serves to
remind women today how much better their lives have become. No longer
confined by society’s oppressive social rules or ostracized for
following their hearts, 21st century women are let off relatively easily
by comparison to their 18th and 19th century sisters.
caught having an affair certainly still carries an unpleasant stigma
but nowadays women are far less likely to suffer penalties for getting
caught in an illicit clinch, and certainly don’t face losing everything
if they do eventually decide, as Anna did, to leave their husband.
Bearing in mind that losing everything in the 19th century meant losing
access to one’s children as well as one’s home, and any property and
money brought to the husband upon marriage. Such a situation today would
be considered barbarous – if not a breech of human rights.
Double standards: Anna falls for the dashing Count Voronsky, left, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. While it was acceptable for men in the 19th century to have an affair, for women it was scandalous
Fallen woman: The Joe Wright directed film shows how Anna becomes ostracised once her affair is exposed
of the risks, women of earlier centuries were still undeterred from
conducting affairs – as were men. In late 19th century Britain, it was
Edward, Prince of Wales and the Marlborough House Set which included
such society hostesses as Lady Randolph Churchill, who made bed hopping
at country house parties almost de rigueur. Far from being chaste and
morally upstanding, our well-to-do married ancestors enjoyed a life of
sexual excess, which today would make us blanch.
The research for my books into the
sexual behavior and antics of 18th and 19th century, have revealed many
eye-openers. The Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a guide book to
prostitutes, was a bestseller for nearly 50 years in the 18th century.
This is hardly surprising considering that most men were expected to be
sexually experienced when entering into marriage.
KEIRA'S TAKE ON ANNA KARENINA
The actress sums up what she thinks of her character's behaviour and how she feels her infidelity would have been received today…
'It’s a tricky one when you’re looking at it because from the last time I read the book I think what it’s actually morally saying is that you shouldn’t do what Anna does. You shouldn’t leave your husband, you shouldn’t cheat.
'I think from our modern sensibilities, the idea of not leaving an unhappy relationship – it’s not something that I agree with. I think you should get out if you need to get out.
'But I think societies haven’t changed but the rules in society have. We have rules; very, very rigid ones and when somebody breaks it the whole pack turns against them. That’s still what happens today.
'Being a woman then (in the 19th century) and the literal laws and the state they were in was absolutely horrific. But I think the idea of the pack animal turning against you is something that we still live with today.'
Generally, men of wealth and title
kept mistresses, both before and during their marriages. Like the
courtesans in my novel, Mistress of My Fate, these women were lavished
with jewels, gowns, and even satin lined coaches. Their indulgent lovers
ruined their family fortunes by renting them expensive houses in St
James and Mayfair, while also underwriting the expenses of London’s most
surprising still, it wasn’t just men who made use of these brothels, but
married women as well. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the
poshest of these establishments rented out rooms to married couples who
wanted to ‘intrigue’ – or even in some cases, to married lady who wanted
a dalliance with a social inferior, such as sturdy-built coachman or a
strapping young footman.
But it’s here where the fun ended for
women. The double standard reigned with a vengeance, and woe betide any
lady who was discovered in flagrant.
Tolstoy shows the double standard in
action, as society brushes off the indiscretions of Anna Karenina’s
brother Prince Stepan Oblonsky, while utterly castigating Anna for
displaying any outward attraction to Vronsky. Indeed, the social stigma
of flaunting an affair as Anna did when she openly went to the opera
with her lover was tantamount to social suicide. Many women’s lives were
ruined if their extra-marital dalliances were discovered.
It is here where one of the main differences lies between illicit love in the past and in the present . A 19th century woman of title would have moved in a restricted social circle, limited mainly to those of her social class. To make matters worse, everyone would have known everyone, everyone would have watched everyone, and everyone would have gossiped incessantly.
Nowadays, women are no longer confined to the parlor, the tea room, or the fish tank–like atmosphere of the opera house. They work, travel, and mix freely with men in every sphere. A woman might just as easily fall for a colleague who she sees at work every day, or conduct an affair with the utmost secrecy via the internet thanks to extra-marital dating websites like IllicitEncounters.com.
Unfair society: Keira, pictured in this behind the scenes shot with director Joe Wright, said the inequality woman faced in the 19th century was 'horrific'
Creating curves: In another behind the scenes picture, the actress's costume which gives her a fuller cleavage, wider hips and a bigger bottom, shows how the ideal figure for a woman has also changed
Perhaps one of the most liberating changes for modern women has been the freedom from unrelenting social censure. If a marriage failed in the past, the woman was more likely than not, the one at whom the finger of blame was pointed, regardless of whether she had been the one at fault.
In the case of a husband’s infidelity, a wife was meant to turn a blind eye, not to complain and to content herself with the love of her children. If he brought home syphilis or gonorrhea, she was meant to suffer in silence. If this life of repressed misery didn’t suit her, if she decided to find someone else to love, her husband could unleash hell.
Caroline Norton, who later became a crusader for married women’s rights, found herself on the receiving end of her jealous husband’s wrath. In 1827 she married the Honorable George Chapple Norton, a violently abusive man who accused her of having an affair with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.
Although he struggled to find actual proof of adultery, he set out to divorce her and destroy her life. He threw her out of her family home and forbade her from ever seeing her children, who were handed over to the care of servants and apathetic distant relations. Although she was innocent, thanks to the efforts of her husband Mrs Norton was thoroughly disgraced in the eyes of society, and never managed to rehabilitate her name.
Different era: The lavish film is released this week and shows how women in the 19th century had a restricted social circle compared to today
Frozen out: If a woman had an affair today it would still be frowned upon but she wouldn't become an outcast
Worse still was the fate of Harriet, Lady Mourdant. Married to Sir Charles Mourdant in 1863, she would have been a contemporary of Anna Karenina. Unlike Caroline Norton, Lady Mourdant admitted to having a series of affairs with men of the Prince of Wales’ circle and even alluded to an affair with the Prince himself. Shocked and mortified, Sir Charles dragged Lady Mourdant and all of her dirty laundry through the divorce courts. Eventually he had her confined to an asylum for the mentally insane. Such was the price a woman who acted with indiscretion could pay.
Expert view: Writer Hallie Rubenhold is a specialist in social and sexual history
In the modern age, affairs don’t necessarily end in divorce, and divorce no longer prevents a woman from leading a happy and fulfilled life. Yet even royal wives weren’t exempt from the humiliation divorce could bring 200 years ago.
In 1820 George IV attempted to divorce his wife Caroline charging her with adultery on the basis of bought-and-paid-for-testimony of fired servants and other enemies of the Princess of Wales. The case threatened to plunge the country into civil war as the philandering George was hugely unpopular at the time. The case failed but Caroline died shortly afterwards when she fell ill after being barred from the coronation on the orders of her husband.
Now in the 21st century, a woman needn’t be royal to enjoy absolution from her sins while cashing in on her misdeeds. In 2005, a US judge awarded the former wife of a multimillionaire businessman a divorce settlement worth more than $40 million even though she admitted having affairs with her rock-climbing guide and a man she met on a flight to China.
In addition to a $24 million payment, Susan Sosin got to keep the couple's $3.6 million Manhattan apartment, $2 million Utah ski house and $800,000 home in New York, $6 million in her brokerage accounts, eight cars and $2.9 million in jewellery, including a ruby piece her husband had bought for her but hadn't given to her prior to their divorce. In short she received about 27% of her husband’s estate.
Hallie Rubenhold is a specialist in social and sexual history. She has written several books on the subject, including Lady Worsley’s Whim and The Covent Garden Ladies, which was made into a documentary for the BBC. Her novel, Mistress of My Fate (Corgi; 2012) set in the underworld of Georgian London is out in paperback on September 13th. For more information visit www.hallierubenhold.com
Click to watch Keira Knightley talking about filming the movie below…
Click to view Anna Karenina film trailer below…