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An essay by Charles Lever

The Rule Nisi

Title:     The Rule Nisi
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

A great many sea-captains discourage the use of life-preservers and floating-belts on board ships of war, on the simple ground that men should not be taught to rely for their safety on anything but what conduces to save the ship. "Let there be but one thought, one effort," say they, "and let that be for the common safety." If they be right--and I suspect they are--we have made a famous blunder by our late legislation about divorce. Of all the crafts that ever were launched, marriage is one from which fewest facilities of desertion should be provided.

Romanism makes very few mistakes in worldly matters. There is no feature of that Church so remarkable as its deep study and thorough acquaintance with all the moods and wants and wishes of humanity. Whatever its demerits, one cannot but admit that no other religion ever approached it in intimacy with the human heart in all its emotions and in all its strivings, whether for good or evil.

Rome declares against all breach of the marriage tie. The Church, with a spirit of concession it knows how to carry through all its dealings, modifies, softens, assuages, but never severs conjugalism. It makes the tie occasionally a slip-knot, but it never cuts the string, and I strongly suspect that it is wise in its legislation.

For a great many years we gave the policy that amount of imitation we are wont to accord to Romanist practices; that is, we follow them in part--we adopt the coat, but, to show that we are not mere imitators, we cut off one of the skirts; and if we do not make the garment more graceful, we at least consult our dignity, and that is something. We made divorce the privilege of men rich enough to come to Parliament for relief; we did with the question what some one proposed we should do with poisons--make them so costly that only wealthy men should be able to afford the luxury of suicide. So long as men believed that divorce was immoral, I don't think any one complained that it should be limited to persons in affluence. We are a lord-loving race, we English, and are quite ready to concede that our superiors should have more vices than ourselves, just as they have more horses and more pheasants; and we deemed it nothing odd or strange that he, whose right it was to walk into the House of Peers, should walk out of matrimony when it suited him.

Who knows?--perhaps we were flattered by the thought that great folk so far conceded to a vulgar prejudice as to marry at all. Perhaps we hailed their entrance into conjugalism as we are wont to do their appearance at a circus or a public garden--a graceful acknowledgment that they occasionally felt something like ourselves: at all events, we liked it, and we showed we liked it by the zeal with which we read those descriptions in newspapers of marriages in high life, and the delight with which we talked to each other of people we never saw, nor probably ever should see. It was not too much, therefore, to concede to them this privilege of escape. It was very condescending of them to come to the play at all; we had no right to insist that they should sit out the whole performance.

By degrees, however, what with rich cotton-lords, and cheap cyclopaedias, and penny trains, and popular lectures, there got up a sort of impression--it was mere impression for a long time--that great folk had more than their share of the puddings' plums; and agitators began to bestir themselves. What were the privileges of the higher classes which would sit most gracefully on their inferiors? Naturally we bethought us of their vices. It was not always so easy to adopt my lord's urbanity, his unassuming dignity, his well-bred ease; but one might reasonably aspire to be as wicked. Sabbath-breaking had long since ceased to be the privilege of the better classes, and so men's minds reverted to the question of divorce. "Let us get rid of our wives!" cried they; "who knows but the day may come when we shall kill woodcocks?"

Now the law, in making divorce a very costly process, had simply desired to secure its infrequency. It was not really meant to be a rich man's privilege. What was sought for was to oppose as many obstacles as could be found, to throw in as many rocks as possible into the channel, so that only he who was intently bent on navigating the stream would ever have the energy to clear the passage. Nobody ever dreamed of making it an open roadstead. In point of fact, the oft-boasted equality before the law is a myth. The penalty which a labourer could endure without hardship might break my lord's heart; and in the very case before us of divorce, nothing can possibly be more variable than the estimate formed of the divorced individuals, according to the class of society they move in.

What would be a levity here, would be a serious immorality there; and a little lower down again, a mere domestic arrangement, slightly more decorous and a shade more legal than the old system of the halter and the public sale. It was declared, however, that this "relief"--that is the popular phrase in such matters--should be extended to the poor man. It was decided that the privilege to get rid of a wife was, as Mr Gladstone says of the electoral right, the inalienable claim of a freeman, and the only course was to lower the franchise.

Let us own, too, we were ashamed, as we had good right to be ashamed, of our old _crim. con._ law. Foreigners, especially Frenchmen, had rung the changes on our coarse venality and corruption; and we had come to perceive--it took some time, though--that moneyed damages were scarcely the appropriate remedy for injured honour.

Last of all, free-trade notions had turned all our heads: we were for getting rid of all restrictions on every side; and we went about repeating to each other those wise saws about buying in the cheapest and selling in the dearest market, and having whatever we wanted, and doing whatever we liked with our own. We are, there is no denying it, a nation of shopkeepers; and the spirit of trade can be tracked through every relation of our lives. It is commerce gives the tone to all our dealings; and we have carried its enactments into the most sacred of all our institutions, and imparted a "limited liability" even to marriage.

Cheapness became the desideratum of our age, We insisted on cheap gloves and shoes and wine and ribbons, and why not cheap divorces? Philosophers tell us that the alternate action of the seasons is one of the purest and most enduring of all sources of enjoyment; that perpetual summer or spring would weary and depress; but in the ever-changing aspect of nature, and in the stimulation which diversity excites, we find an unfailing gratification. If, therefore, it be pleasant to be married, it may also be agreeable to be unmarried. It takes some time, however, before society accommodates itself to these new notions. The newly divorced, be it man or woman, comes into the world like a patient after the smallpox--you are not quite certain whether the period of contagion is past, or if it be perfectly safe to go up and talk to him. In fact, you delay doing so till some strong-minded friend or other goes boldly forward and shakes the convalescent by the hand. Even still there will be timid people who know perhaps that their delicacy of constitution renders them peculiarly sensitive, and who will keep aloof after all. Of course, these and similar prejudices will give way to time. We have our Probate Court; and the phrase _co-respondent_ is now familiar as a household word.

Now, however tempting the theme, I am not going to inquire whether we have done wisely or the reverse by this piece of legislation; whether, by instilling certain precepts of self-control, a larger spirit of accommodation, and a more conciliatory disposition generally, we might have removed some of the difficulties without the heroic remedy of the decree _nisi_; whether, in fact, it might not have been better to teach people to swim, or even float, rather than make this great issue of cheap life-belts. I am so practical that I rather address myself to profit by what is, than endeavour by any change to make it better. We live in a statistical age. We are eternally inquiring who it is wants this, who consumes that, who goes to such a place, who is liable to this or that malady. Classification is a passion with us; and we have bulky volumes to teach us what sorts of people have chest affections, what are most prone to stomachic diseases, who have ophthalmia, and who the gout. We are also instructed as to the kind of persons most disposed to insanity, and we have a copious list of occupations given us which more or less incline those who profess them to derangement. Even the Civil-Service Examiners have contributed their share to this mass of entertaining knowledge, and shown from what parts of the kingdom bad spellers habitually come, what counties are celebrated for cacography, and in what districts etymology is an unknown thing. Would it not, then, be a most interesting and instructive statistic that would give us a tabular view of divorce, showing in what classes frailty chiefly prevailed, with the relative sexes, and also a glimpse at the ages? Imagine what a light the statement would throw on the morality of classes, and what an incalculable benefit to parents in the choice of a career for their children! For instance, no sensible father would select a life of out-door exposure for a weak-chested son, or make a sailor of one with an incurable sea-sickness. In the same way would he be guided by the character of his children as to the perils certain careers would expose them to.

A passing glance at the lists of divorce shows us that no "promovent"--it is a delicate title, and I like it--no promovent figures oftener than a civil engineer. Now, how instructive to inquire why!

What is there in embankments and earthworks and culverts that should dispose the wife of him who makes them to infidelity? Why should a tunnel only lead to domestic treachery? why must a cutting sever the heart that designs it? I do not know; I cannot even guess. My ingenuity stands stockstill at the question, and I can only re-echo, Why?

Next amongst the "predisposed" come schoolmasters, plasterers, &c.; What unseen thread runs through the woof of these natures, apparently so little alike? It is the boast of modern science to settle much that once was puzzling, and reconcile to a system what formerly appeared discordant. How I wish some great Babbage-like intellect would bestir itself in this inquiry.

Surely ethical questions are as well worthy of investigation as purely physical or mechanical ones, and yet we ignore them most ignominiously. We think no expense too great to test an Armstrong or a Whitworth gun; we spend thousands to ascertain how far it will carry, what destructive force it possesses, and how long it will resist explosion;--why not appoint a commission of this nature on "conjugate;" why not ascertain, if we can, what is the weak point in matrimony, and why are explosions so frequent? Is the "cast" system a bad one, and must we pronounce "welding" a failure? or, last of all, however wounding to our national vanity, do "they understand these things better in France"?

[The end]
Charles Lever's essay: Rule Nisi