Frankly, they had few rights. Marriage settlements among the wealthy certainly ensured the future of a new wife. On widowhood, she would be protected. But in return, whatever she owned passed to her husband, unless it was tied up in such a way that he could not access it. That would have to be legally done to be valid.
This was why heiresses were in demand. Impecunious young gentlemen could make their fortune by marrying into wealth. Here we come, Gretna Green! But that was a risk because an irate father might cut off his daughter's inheritance to prevent the fortune-hunter benefitting. Which did not help the wife one bit. She was now poor as well as subject to her husband's whim.
Aye, there's the rub, as Shakespeare would say. Your modern miss has little conception of a wife's lack of rights. Even in my youth, the law was on the side of the husband. Nowadays, divorce is rife and a battered wife has recourse to a rescue centre, the police, friends and family.
A Georgian battered wife might appeal to her family, but they had no right in law to keep her against her husband's will. A man had the right, by law, to beat his wife. There is now some doubt about the truth of "rule of thumb", which phrase is alleged to have come about through the law that a man could beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Be that as it may, it was still legal to do it.
This behaviour, which is cruelty in our 21st century eyes was, it must be said, considered the norm in the eighteenth century. Beatings as punishments, whether in public, in schools or at home were part of daily life. None would think anything of a wife receiving such "correction" as they thought of it.
What was not commonly acceptable, among gentlemen at least, was a fist beating. That came under the banner of ungentlemanly conduct. It was one thing to apply a correctional beating in the proper place, quite another to thump the living daylights out of a lady.
Thus, the threat of scandal was likely to induce the perpetrator to keep his battering secret. And the victim was too ashamed to allowed it to be known. Not so far away from the early part of the 20th century, to be frank, before rescue centres were available and police could not interfere.
Such a victim is my heroine's mother in A Fragile Mask. Verena has witnessed years of abuse towards her mother by her stepfather. It has made her learn to wear a public face, to keep her feelings hidden. We meet her when she has helped her mother to escape and is struggling to make a new life in Tunbridge Wells against the danger of discovery and her mama's stricken condition.
Enter Denzell Hawkeridge, charming, lively and ready for a light-hearted flirtation. Alas, he is doomed to disappointment when he decides to tackle the ice maiden.
In Tunbridge Wells, Denzell watches a beautiful girl playing with children. But the mysterious Verena proves cold and apparently impervious to Denzell’s charm. But Verena, anxious for her abused mother’s health, is struggling to remain aloof. Will his affection be enough to coax Verena out of her fear of matrimony?