Lydia Bennet was fifteen years old when she fell under the spell of George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Willful and foolish, she eloped with Wickham less than a year after making his acquaintance, leaving her family stunned by the news and tainted (in Society’s eyes) by her actions.
Why Did He Do It?
One question Lydia’s father and sister Elizabeth pondered was, why would Wickham run off with Lydia? She had no money, no dowry, and no connections. Had he some hidden motive in singling Lydia Bennet out as the object of his villainy?
Jane Austen never revealed Wickham’s true motive in the story, but it could very well be that George Wickham was just plain caddish when it came to his dealings with women. The Bennet family was right to worry that Lydia’s actions would have a long-term effect on the family’s reputation. Society did not deal kindly with anyone whose name was attached to scandal.
Lydia Bennet entered into her scandalous union with Wickham with her eyes wide open; but there are records of similarly situated young women who were innocent victims of such men.
The Teacher and the Student
The Newgate Calendar (a chronicle of the scoundrels who were confined within the walls of London’s Newgate Prison) recounts the trial of Henry Morris, whose story has parallels to Wickham’s.
Morris was a teacher by profession, and one of his students was fifteen-year-old Mary Anne Murphy. Morris was smitten with Mary Anne; he approached her father in 1812, declared his undying love and asked the father’s permission to marry her.
Mr. Murphy gave Morris his consent to marry his daughter once she attained the age of sixteen some six months hence; in the meantime, he required that Morris court his daughter only under his supervision.
Morris agreed, but quickly went back on his word, meeting Mary Anne in secret. Morris began missing his teaching responsibilities at the same time Mary Anne began missing class; soon Morris abandoned teaching his classes altogether, and Mary Anne went truant. Within months of promising to wait until his beloved was of age, Henry Morris eloped with Mary Anne Murphy to Scotland.
Once husband and wife, they returned to Mary Anne’s father to make amends; but Mr. Murphy had been looking into Henry Morris’s background, and discovered his new son-in-law was even worse than he imagined.
The Case against Him
Henry Murphy, it was discovered, was not a teacher at all. He had no qualifications and had forged his credentials to secure his position.
Second, Morris had a history of wooing and abandoning young girls; Mr. Murphy discovered four such girls and suspected there were more.
Third—and worst of all—Henry Morris was not only a bounder, but a bigamist. At the time he ran off to Scotland with Mary Ann Murphy, he was already married to a woman named Maria Fontaine.
Mr. Murphy had Henry Morris arrested on the charge of bigamy; he was imprisoned at Newgate until his trial. Young Mary Anne—in typical Lydia Bennet style—refused to see her husband’s infamy. She stood by him, took home-cooked meals to his cell, held his hand in court, and begged her father over and over to drop the charges against her husband. He refused.
Henry Morris was convicted of bigamy and he was deported to serve seven years of hard labor at a penal colony in Australia. Mary Anne’s response:
When the verdict was pronounced, she burst into the most outrageous expressions of grief; cried out most violently to save him; tore her hair, and clung around his neck, declaring that she would not be separated from him. The judges, however, ordered her to be removed, but directed that it should be done as gently as possible; and she was accordingly carried out of court in a state of utter distraction.
Some reports allege that Mary Anne followed Morris to Australia, waited patiently for his release from prison, and lived with him again as man and wife.
As sad as Mary Anne Murphy’s story was, there was an even more famous case of bigamy that shocked England in the early 1800s.
The Bigamous Rake
In 1802 Mary Robinson was quietly living her life in the Lake District. A shepherdess and the daughter of the proprietor of The Fish Inn in the village of Buttermere, Mary was an acknowledged beauty in the county. She was also quite an innocent and was, therefore, unprepared when a handsome gentleman with “blue eyes and a fair complexion” drove into Buttermere.
He introduced himself as Colonel Alexander Augustus Hope, a wealthy retired officer and younger brother to the Earl of Hopetoun. He was so taken with Mary’s beauty, he immediately set out to woo her; within three months of their meeting she agreed to elope with him to Scotland.
It wasn’t until her husband abandoned her within months of their marriage that Mary discovered several hard truths:
- Her husband’s name wasn’t Alexander Hope and he was not related to Lord Hopetoun. His real name was John Hatfield, and he was the son of poor parents in Cheshire.
- John Hatfield had a long history of romancing women possessed of dowries or fortunes large and small, marrying them, and abandoning them. He was a bigamist, several times over.
- Hatfield left a trail of forged checks and unpaid bills across England, thanks to his smooth talking ability to swindle tradesmen, hoteliers, and acquaintances. (Sounds a lot like Wickham, doesn’t it?)
After he deserted Mary Robinson, Hatfield married at least two more women. He finally met his match when one of the women he wronged turned him in to authorities. He was convicted of several counts of forgery and bigamy; and because the court heard sufficient testimony to deem him an habitual criminal, John Hatfield was condemned to death. He was hanged in 1803.
Is it possible these famous cases (and others like them) were in the back of Jane Austen’s mind as she wrote her story about Lydia and Wickham? Perhaps, but the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice hints that while their love didn’t last forever, Lydia and Wickham at least stayed together, and Lydia “retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her.”
You can read more about the bigamous John Hatfield and the Maid of Buttermere by clicking on any of the following links: