The Primrose Path

 

Philip Yorke, lst Earl of Hardwicke (See Footnote)

 

Fanny Wilmot, lover of the nefarious cleric, Hupsman, knows her rights, thanks to Mrs Wollstonecraft, while Hupsman muses on some subtle blackmail of his patron, Lord Berkeley.

 

Wilmot’s unseemly invasion had given the lovers sterling morale.
 
“It is not very pretty in him to pursue justice so,” said Fanny, tearfully, letting slip the volume she was reading which had done nothing to take her mind off the subject, but rather the reverse. “I am more wronged than he!”
 
Hupsman relinquished his book to the small pie-crust table, training his seeing eye upon her in a benign and meditative manner. Butler’s Lives of the Saints was engrossing his mind a good deal of late, particularly those who had fought the torments of the flesh.
  
“Sadly, the law takes no account of his infidelities, my dear.”
 
“A true gentleman would spare a lady’s reputation. We have  been discretion itself. Why couldn’t he be satisfied with a church divorce?”

“He may wish,” conjectured Hupsman, “to remarry. Only an act of Parliament will suffice in that case.”

“I begin to think, Huppy, he deserved Mrs Wright very well! Caroline Borlase Warren believes he took the woman down to Dunsford Manor in Devonshire, his new estate, and openly entertained the Barings from Larkbeare.”

“That was callous and imprudent, to say the least.”

“Flaunting his mistress! How could he be so bereft of decency?” A fresh outbreak of weeping prompted Fanny to grope inside her sleeve for a handkerchief. Hupsman did the gallant thing and supplied his. He kept a spare one these days. “Pray, find my vinaigrette, dearest, I have mislaid it.”
  
His caper down the primrose path of adultery had started to make him nervous. He had not guessed how far it would lead into the barbed thickets of Machiavellian revenge. At first, it had been thrilling to defy his upbringing and what was expected of him. It was deliciously illicit and made him feel daring and whole. He could take flight from himself and discover the being he really was, away from Elizabeth and her invasion by stealth of his personality and will. But the fruit hung from a mildewed bough. Fanny seemed to expect Hupsman to compensate for all her disappointments and slights. A militant streak had hardened her character, influenced by the writings of the feminist Mrs Wollstonecraft. The author’s soon-to-be-published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was the butt of sensational rumour even before it appeared. None of her views was couched in euphemism and should have brought a crimson blush to the cheek of any modest female.

Having reunited his heart’s delight with her smelling salts, Hupsman sank back into his chair with a decrepit sigh.

“You must let go, Fanny. Put away this noxious literature which teaches you to nurse grievance. It is unnatural and against God’s order. Who is the woman, anyway?”

“The daughter of a Spitalfields weaver. Oh, but do not discount her. She is articulate and dares to air what we women are feeling. She speaks!"

“I confess,” said Hupsman, rubbing his brow, “I find it incomprehensible why the weaker vessel should wish to dispense with a man’s protection.”

“Because he owns her, don’t you see? He demands slavish obedience. She is dependent upon him for her very livelihood. Men are entitled to beat their wives with a stick as thick as a thumb, and rape in marriage is not a crime. That makes us legal harlots.”
  
“Fanny, Fanny, this is unbecoming. To see your tender heart so corrupted...!”
  
“But I would have nothing if it were not for your mother’s charity,” Fanny protested. “There never was so mean a miser as Wilmot since he has been denied his rightful inheritance. That’s why he seeks restitution for those deprived of lands and connives in Bills to prevent divorced women marrying their lovers!”
  
Hupsman winced. He had not considered this as part of their agenda. As far as he was concerned, he might leave Elizabeth, but he would always be married to her. Squaring his conscience was a private matter between himself and God, but the laws of the nation, informed by the Mosaic Code, must be upheld.
  
“Fanny,” he said at length, “you need protection. My life in Berkeley is wearisome and has become a sham.”
  
“You mean to leave your wife and living? Oh!” whispered Fanny, aghast, covering her mouth with her fingers. Could she really be responsible for causing such injury to her sex? But Elizabeth was no wife, she persuaded herself. It was God who judged the heart.
  
“Elizabeth will wear a plaster mask as though nothing has happened.”
  
“But where will she go? How shall you support her?”
  
The ghost of a smile hovered upon Hupsman’s countenance and his vitreous eye was never so eloquent.
  
“His lordship won’t constrain her to quit her hearth, I believe. He won’t want a stir.”
  
The time had come, as some instinct had told him it one day would. On the journey back to Berkeley, Hupsman reviewed his plan for exacting funds from the Earl. He had long resented the servility that entangled him in Lord Berkeley’s iniquity. God was not mocked: the marriage was as sound as any attested by Lord Hardwicke’s Act. And, by an ironic quirk of evolution, that was what it had become.

Excerpt from THE WOLF AND THE LAMB, First Book in the Berkeley Series

 

Footnote:  "An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage", popularly known as Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act