Criminal Conversation in the Regency Era + Excerpt from MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs

Several years back, I did a series for my blog, Every Woman Dreams, entitled “Eccentrics of the Regency.” One of the pieces I wrote was on Edward Hughes Ball Hughes. In it, I wrote: “Hughes’ older sister Catherine Ball was a socialite, journalist, and novelist who eventually styled herself the “Baroness de Calabrella” after acquiring property in Italy. She married an older man, Rev. Francis Lee, at the age of 16 in 1804, without her mother’s permission, and was separated from him in 1810 on charges of adultery; her lover, Captain George de Blaquiere, was successfully sued by Reverend Lee for criminal conversation.” When I read this, I wondered whether “criminal conversation” was anything like “alienation of affection.” So, I was determined to find out.

Criminal conversation is commonly known as crim. con. It is a tort arising from adultery.  For those of you who do not understand “legal speak,” tort law involves a situation where a person’s actions unfairly causes another to suffer harm or loss. The case is not based around an “illegal” action, but rather one of not thinking of the other person and causing some sort of harm. The law allows the harmed individual to recover his loss, generally by awarding monetary compensation. To prevail (win) in a tort law case the plaintiff (person suing) must show the actions or lack of action was the most likely cause of the harm.

Criminal Conversation is similar to breach of promise, a former tort involving a broken engagement against the betrothed, or alienation of affections, a tort action brought by a deserted spouse against a third party.

In 18th and 19th Century England, criminal conversation cases were common. It was not unheard of for the plaintiff to be awarded sums as high as £20,000. These cases were seen at the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall. Not only did the plaintiff make money on the proceedings, but so did publishers such as Edmund Curll, whose name became synonymous, through the attacks on him by Alexander Pope, with unscrupulous publication and publicity.  

Although neither the plaintiff, defendant, or the wife accused of the adultery were permitted to take the stand, evidence of the adulterous behavior was presented by servants or observers. Awards of damages were based upon compensation for the husband’s loss of property rights in his wife, the wife being regarded as his chattel. Historically a wife could not sue her husband for adultery, as he could not be her chattel if she was already his. The criminal conversation tort was abolished in England in 1857, and the Republic of Ireland in 1976. It still exists in parts of the United States, although the application has changed. At least 29 states have abolished the tort by statute and another 4 have abolished it by common law. 

A number of very sensational cases were heard in the second half of the 18th century, including Grosvenor v. Cumberland in 1769, where Lord Grosvenor sued the King’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland for crim con with his wife, being awarded damages of £10,000; and Worsley v. Bisset in 1782, where Sir Richard Worsley lost his case against George Bisset, after it had been found that Sir Richard had colluded in his own dishonour, by showing his friend his wife Seymour Dorothy Fleming naked in a bath house. In 1796, the Earl of Westmeath was awarded £10,000 against his wife’s lover, Augustus Bradshaw.

The tort has seen particular use in North Carolina (my current home state). Criminal Conversation is one of the “Heart-Balm” Laws, which include breach of promise, wrongful seduction, and alienation of affection.” ‘Criminal conversation,’ in turn, was a civil cause of action that dated back at least to the Seventeenth Century in England. The name is oddly inappropriate, since there was nothing criminal about the claim, and it certainly was not about conversation. Rather, “Crim. Con.” allowed a man to bring suit against another man who had sex with his wife. It was a remedy for loss of the wife’s “consortium” (that is, of the companionship and sex she had provided before being seduced by another). Proof of a valid marriage and extramarital sex were all that was required for the husband to make out a successful claim against the interloper.” [Find Law] Our most famous Crim Con case in North Carolina in many years was when the late Elizabeth Edwards sued her husband’s, John Edwards’s, former Presidential candidate, “mistress,” Rielle Hunter.

MDF eBook Cover Introducing MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs…

I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.

ELIZABETH BENNET is determined that she will put a stop to her mother’s plans to marry off the eldest Bennet daughter to Mr. Collins, the Longbourn heir, but a man that Mr. Bennet considers an annoying dimwit. Hence, Elizabeth disguises herself as Jane and repeats her vows to the supercilious rector as if she is her sister, thereby voiding the nuptials and saving Jane from a life of drudgery. Yet, even the “best laid plans” can often go awry.

FITZWILLIAM DARCY is desperate to find a woman who will assist him in leading his sister back to Society after Georgiana’s failed elopement with Darcy’s old enemy George Wickham. He is so desperate that he agrees to Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s suggestion that Darcy marry her ladyship’s “sickly” daughter Anne. Unfortunately, as he waits for his bride to join him at the altar, he realizes he has made a terrible error in judgement, but there is no means to right the wrong without ruining his cousin’s reputation. Yet, even as he weighs his options, the touch of “Anne’s” hand upon his sends an unusual “zing” of awareness shooting up Darcy’s arm. It is only when he realizes the “zing” has arrived at the hand of a stranger, who has disrupted his nuptials, that he breathes both a sigh of relief and a groan of frustration, for the question remains: Is Darcy’s marriage to the woman legal?

What if Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet met under different circumstances than those we know from Jane Austen’s classic tale: Circumstances that did not include the voices of vanity and pride and prejudice and doubt that we find in the original story? Their road to happily ever after may not, even then, be an easy one, but with the expectations of others removed from their relationship, can they learn to trust each other long enough to carve out a path to true happiness?

Enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 5 of MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs in which Elizabeth first learns of Lady Catherine’s idea of having Anne sue Elizabeth for drawing off Darcy’s attentions.

“I am pleased to find you from your bed,” he said politely while eyeing her with interest.

Elizabeth did not address his attempt at consideration. Instead, she asked, “Could you explain to me, sir, how you thought it acceptable to remove my person from your home to your yacht without my permission?” She watched as a muscle along his jaw line twitched, but otherwise, his expression of indifference remained in place.

“It was necessary for you to depart Darcy House, and as you were in no condition to make that decision, I made it for you. As part of my wedding plans, I was set to sail on the day of our departure; therefore, I took advantage of the ship’s preparedness.”

“And why was it necessary for me to leave Darcy House? Could you not have sailed alone? I would have been up and moving about in a day or two, and then I could be gone from your society. No one would have known the difference.”

Other than a slight life of his eyebrow, he displayed no reaction to her tight lipped accusations. “My aunt learned of your presence under my roof. She planned to send a magistrate to my home to arrest you. I thought it best if we were removed from England until this matter can be settled.”

“Arrest me?” Elizabeth demanded. “Upon what charges? Certainly what I did was unconventional, but it was not a crime. It was a mistake. I have no desire to remain with you, and you, sir, should be glad to observe my exit. I have caused you nothing but grief and inconvenience. Needless to say, Miss De Bourgh would still accept a man of your consequence. Marry your cousin. Lady Catherine will be mollified, and I will return to my life in the country. All will be forgiven.”

“If you think my aunt will forgive or forget your perceived insult, you are sadly mistaken. Lady Catherine will make your life and the lives of your loved ones miserable. Only with my protection will you remain safe,” he argued.

Elizabeth swallowed hard against the trepidation filling her chest. “I shall…I shall assume my chances, sir. Surely a woman of Lady Catherine’s stature will extend her forgiveness once I explain the situation.” She lifted her chin in defiance.

“More likely she will force Anne to sue you for criminal conversation. I know my aunt, she will not be happy until she leaves you and your family in penury. Not only did you forestall her aspirations of having Anne at Pemberley, but you treated her cleric as if he were insignificant. She sees Mr. Collins’s character as a reflection of her condescension.”

Elizabeth fought the anxiety rising in her stomach. “Nevertheless, I insist that you set me down in the next port and provide me enough coins to claim passage home. I will have Mr. Bennet reimburse you as quickly as I make my way to Hertfordshire.”

“That might be difficult,” he said with a wry twist of his lips, “for you to make your way to Mr. Bennet’s estate in what you are wearing.”

Despite her best efforts, despair pooled in her eyes. “So you mean to keep me a prisoner by refusing me proper dress?” she accused. “I demand the return of the dress I wore for the wedding!”

He shrugged in indifference. “On the morning of our departure, Mrs. Guthrie and a maid dressed in your gown made a great show of leaving Darcy House. I am certain my neighbors will have taken notice of your exodus. My servants have been instructed that if anyone asks after me to tell them that I was so upset after the wedding that I departed for my estate. The servants will also inform those who wish to be apprised of my comings and goings that the poor soul I saw into my house was a distant relation who had been injured at the wedding, and that I instructed my staff to tend the young lady in my absence. When the magistrate calls upon Darcy House he will learn of your leave taking from more than Mrs. Guthrie, who is to explain that you fell into the street before Lord Haverton’s coach and was treated by Doctor Nott. Both my housekeeper and the good physician will confirm the story of your departure. They will tell the official that you asked to be returned to your home in Bath, and before I left Town upon personal business, I made the necessary arrangements.”

“No one will believe such a convoluted tale,” she argued.

“On the contrary, my dear. The ton is quite gullible. They will believe any tale that smacks of gossip, and they will add their own tidbits to it to make it more outrageous.”

“Then what am I to wear?” she insisted, although she wished her voice had not cracked upon the word “wear.” She suddenly felt like Mr. Darcy’s mistress, for she was dressed for the role.

His expression softened, as if he could read her thoughts. “We had little time to prepare, but Hannah, the maid you met earlier, has altered several of my sister’s gowns. Miss Darcy has sprouted up in the last year, but some of her former gowns will do nicely until we can have something specifically designed for you. Mrs. Guthrie suggest those items ordered as part of Anne’s trousseau, but I rejected the idea, for my Aunt Catherine could then label you a thief. It is best to do over some of my sister’s gowns, rather than to provide her ladyship with a reason to see you behind bars.”

Elizabeth wished to acknowledge his sensible actions, but it was her life in which he dabbled, and all of his decisions were simply too personal. She gritted out the words, “As I am at your disposal, how are we to proceed?”

“If you are agreeable, I thought we might have supper. I tire of eating alone.”

On the subject of Criminal Conversation, I thought you might enjoy William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Damages, Two Hundred Pounds.”

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)

                      DAMAGES, TWO HUNDRED POUNDS

Special Jurymen of England! who admire your country’s laws,

And proclaim a British Jury worthy of the realm’s applause;

Gaily compliment each other at the issue of the cause

Which was tried at Guildford ‘sizes, this day week as ever was.

Unto that august tribunal comes a gentleman in grief,

(Special was the British Jury, and the Judge, the Baron Chief),

Comes a British man and husband–asking of the law relief,

For his wife was stolen from him–he’d have vengeance on the thief.

Yes, his wife, the blessed treasure with which his life was crowned,

Wickedly ravished from him by a hypocrite profound.

And he comes before twelve Britons, men for sense and truth renowned.

To award  him for his damage, twenty hundred sterling pound.

He by counsel and attorney there at Guildford does appear,

Asking damages of the villain who seduced his lady dear;

But I can’t help asking, though the lady’s guilt was all too clear,

And though guilty the defendant, wasn’t the plaintiff rather queer?

First, the lady’s mother spoke, and she said she’d seen her daughter cry

But a fortnight after marriage: early times for piping eye.

Six months after, things were worse, and the piping eye was black,

And this gallant British husband caned his wife upon the back.

Three months after they were married, husband pushed her to the door,

Told her to be off and leave him, for he wanted her no more;

As she would not go, why  he went; thrice he left his lady dear,

Left her, too, without a penny, for more than quarter of a year.

Mrs. Frances Duncan knew the parties very well indeed,

She had seen him pull his lady’s nose, and make her lip to bleed;

If he chanced to sit at home not a single word he said;

Once she saw him throw the cover of a dish at his lady’s head.

Sarah Green, another witness, clear did to the Jury note

How she saw this honest fellow seize his lady by the throat,

How he cursed her and abused her, beating her into a fit,

Till the pitying next-door neighbors crossed the wall and witnessed it.

Next door to this injured Briton Mr. Owens, a butcher, dwelt;

Mrs. Owen’s foolish heart towards this erring dame did melt;

(Not that she had erred as yet, crime was not developed in her)

But being left without a penny, Mrs. Owens supplied her dinner–

God be merciful to Mrs. Owens, who was merciful to this sinner!

Caroline Naylor was their servant, said they lived a wretched life,

Saw this most distinguished Briton fling a teacup at his wife;

He went out to balls and pleasures, and never once, in ten-months’ space,

Sate with his wife, or spoke her kindly. This was the defendant’s case.

Pollock, C .B., charged the Jury, said the woman’s guilt was clear;

That was not the point, however, which the Jury came to hear

But the damage to determine which, as it should true appear,

This most tenderhearted husband, who so used his lady dear.

Beat her, kicked her, caned her, cursed her, left her starving, year by


Flung her from him, parted from her, wrung her neck, and boxed her ear–

What the reasonable damages this afflicted man could claim

By the loss of the affections of this guilty graceless dame?

Then the Honest Twelve, to each other turning round,

Laid their clever heads together with the wisdom most profound;

And towards his Lordship looking, spoke the foreman wise and sound;

`My Lord, we find for this here plaintiff damages two hundred pound.’

So, God bless the Special Jury! pride and joy of English ground,

And the happy land of England, where true justice does abound!

British Jurymen and husbands; let us hail this verdict proper;

If a British wife offends you, Britons, you’ve a right to whop her.

Though you promised to protect her, though you promised to defend her,

You are welcome to neglect her: to the devil you may send her;

You may strike her, curse her; so declares our law renowned;

And if after this you lose her– why you’re paid two hundred pound.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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10 Responses to Criminal Conversation in the Regency Era + Excerpt from MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs

  1. Vesper says:

    interesting to learn something new, but also suprised to find that it still exists in some States

    • The tort was abolished in England and Wales in 1857, but persisted in Ireland long after (Northern Ireland retained it until 1939, and the Republic of Ireland until 1976). It still exists in parts of the United States, but the application has changed. At least 29 states have abolished the tort by statute and another four have abolished it judicially.

  2. Another great excerpt and information! Thank you for sharing, Regina! 😉

  3. Glenda M says:

    Thanks for another educational post with an excellent related excerpt!

  4. Anji says:

    Fascinating article, Regina. One thing that we Brits find somewhat strange about the US is that states can, for the most part, set their own laws. Although the land areas are vastly different, it would seem to me to be akin to counties in England and Wales doing the same. Admittedly though, Scotland and Northern Ireland do have their own legal jurisdictions.

    The details of that poem are appalling, aren’t they? It was obvious that the author didn’t agree with the verdict!

    As you know, I’ve already won a copy of your book earlier in your tour and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    • State rights have always been a prominent part of our history, Anji. While many who are protesting “slavery” as being the cause of the Civil War, it was really the rights of states that brought the North and the South to blows. Robert E. Lee wrote his wife four years earlier that he considered slavery “a moral and political evil.” He told Francis Blair, a close political ally of President Lincoln, that he “looked upon secession as anarchy.” So why did he spurn a chance to command the Union and instead take up a cause for which he was less than enthusiastic? While Lee professed to dislike slavery, he disliked abolitionists even more. He felt that the South had been “aggrieved” by acts of the North that called out for redress. As the son of a Revolutionary War hero, he was likely sympathetic to Southerners who saw this as a second revolution against tyranny. Lee was quoted as saying, “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”
      As quoted in The American Soul : An Appreciation of the Four Greatest Americans and their Lessons for Present Americans (1920) by Charles Sherwood Farriss, p. 63.

      Our states are divided into counties, so the use of the word “counties” as indicating states is not quite accurate in the American verbiage. However, after saying that, I would admit to thinking of your “shires” as states.

  5. Lúthien84 says:

    It’s an interesting post, Regina. I think I’ve mentioned it in one of the blog stops that I first heard about criminal conversation in Garrow’s Law and then again in The Scandalous Lady W. We can learn many new things by watching TV dramas.

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