Category: Fiction/Divorce – Paperback: 320 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: My own shelves
First Published: 1934
In 1934 two novels were published that focused on the absurdity of the English divorce laws of the time, one was Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and the other was Holy Deadlock by A P Herbert. It was Holy Deadlock that had the bigger impact – it sold more than 90,000 copies and was a “sensation on both sides of the Atlantic”. It also led to Herbert being elected as an MP in 1935 and a new divorce law being introduced in 1937.
At the heart of the story are poor John Adam and Mary Eve. Thrown together after World War One when they were young, naive and everyone made jokes and threw them together because of their names (how could Adam and Eve not be a perfect match?) they married in 1920. Seven years later they’d tried to make things work but he’s a textbook publisher and she’s a theatre actress, their personalities are just too different. As John sensibly asks on the opening page:
‘Was there any other lifelong bargain in which a mistake was irrevocable, from which the law provided no honourable escape at all?’
Divorce in England at the time was almost impossible though.
Your spouse could go mad and be sent to an asylum, they could be imprisoned for life, they could beat you black and blue every day or just disappear into thin air. All those were unfortunate but you couldn’t get a divorce for any of those reasons. The only way to get a divorce was to prove one of you had committed adultery. And yes, it could only be one of you – if you both committed adultery it was deemed safer for society to leave you shackled to each other.
So for John and Mary to be able to divorce and get on with their lives one of them will have to ‘prove’ they have committed adultery. It’s been two years since they stopped living together and both are involved with someone else. John has met Joan, a school teacher, and Mary is in love with Martin, who works for the BBC.
Here’s the problem – Joan and Martin both have employers who expect snow-white reputations from their staff, both would lose their jobs and struggle to find another if they were cited in a divorce trial and mentioned in the newspaper reports of it. So neither can help John and Mary get out of their marriage.
Instead, Mary asks John to ‘behave like a gentleman’ and find another woman who he can pretend adultery with…
What follows is a farce of finding an agency where you can hire such a woman, an uncomfortable weekend at a Brighton hotel with ‘Miss Myrtle’ to ‘prove’ the relationship before sending the hotel bill as evidence (along with the divorce petition) to Mary on the Monday. This is such common practice by men seeking divorce that the hotel manager is sick of his staff being whisked away to the London courts to testify they’ve seen adulterous couples in bed together when delivering the morning cup of tea!
After all this embarrassing subterfuge for poor, shy John, the first attempt fails when the hotel maid tries to protect John’s reputation by denying she’s seen him before. The judge also queries why John would go to a hotel with Miss Myrtle when he didn’t seem to have known her for very long.
The second attempt sees John’s partner-in-non-crime, a governess who fancies some extra funds, come down with measles which means spending weeks in a seaside hotel nursing her better. They had however instructed Mary’s private detective to document them ‘courting’ around London and John’s flat previously though so the case is more solid and the divorce is granted.
You knew there was a but, right?
All divorces took six months to be granted and could be revoked in that time. The courts employed an official called the King’s Proctor to investigate any queried divorce request. While John has been desperately trying to prove adultery with women he’s got no interest in, Mary has been struggling to make Martin wait for the divorce. When they go sailing to finally spend some time alone together they accidentally get trapped on the boat overnight and it results in a nasty neighbour sending an anonymous tip-off to the KP to investigate – the divorce will be reversed if both Mary and John have committed adultery.
When the final trial reveals that a private eye saw Mary let Martin into her hotel room while working in Manchester (only to say goodnight) all John’s efforts are in vain. The judge refuses to exercise discretion or believe in Mary’s innocence. He refuses to finalise the divorce.
By the end of the novel, John has spent a fortune and is no closer to being divorced. The woman he was doing all this for, Joan, is now a headmistress and can’t be seen with him. Martin has been sacked by the BBC. Mary can live with Martin but if they do she’ll never be able to get her divorce which depends on a new trial and John pretending to commit adultery a third time…
It’s a plot with lots of twists and Herbert has a lot of fun with his characters. I can’t help calling them ‘poor’ John and Mary because every time they appear to be winning the game someone adds another fiendish rule. Though Herbert doesn’t really look at the social implications of divorce being so expensive and only granted by the London courts he does manage to imply the stress it puts on everyone involved and though he keeps it light-hearted it could just as easily read as tragedy.
Mary has had to keep her love for Martin on hold while trying to get the divorce and it stifles her natural happiness. Before they conceded defeat and split, John could only occasionally see Joan in the holidays because they didn’t dare risk her reputation while he was still officially married to someone else. Joan and Martin had to wait patiently, sneak around and dodge private detectives and couldn’t even be alone in private with the person they love. Herbert points out a couple of times in passing how much worse this might have been if John and Mary had had children.
I find humour hard to judge and occasionally Herbert is paternally patronising about his female characters but my word, no wonder this sold so many copies and resulted in such debate. It’s revolutionary stuff and I’m not at all surprised that the man who wrote it brought about a change in the law within three years. Though happily married himself Herbert clearly cared deeply about the injustice of only letting ordinary men and women have one shot at happiness and making no allowance for mistakes.
This counts for the year 1934 in my 20th Century of Books.
Further Reading: This book was the first to include the word ‘fangirl’
Buy the book: Book Depository