The Weekly Machen
This week, Arthur Machen gives us a hard word. This article is an impassioned, but well-argued response to new recommendations for relaxing divorce laws. And he is not wrong in his conclusions. In fact, he is prophetic. “No fault divorce” has wrought tremendous damage to society and the family. Furthermore, Machen’s following defense of marriage as a sacramental mystery harmonizes beautifully with his depiction of matrimony in A Fragment of Life, perhaps his greatest work. And finally, his proclamation of being “a Churchman, a mediævalist, a reactionary” is unambiguous. We must contend with what Machen says about himself, not what we may wish him to be.
After the text, I have appended several graphic excerpts which shared space with Machen’s article. The first details the findings by the Royal Commission and the remaining segments offer additional opinion.
This article is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone and Sweester.
A Churchman’s View of the Drastic New Scheme
November 12, 1912
Some time ago there was a Royal Commission on whiskey. A number of reactionary drinkers and thinkers had made the monstrous proposition that the name whiskey should be restricted to a drink made of certain grain distilled in a certain way.
This being clearly an intolerable proposition, a Royal Commission was appointed, and it decided that no restrictions were needed; as far as I remember, it was laid down that you may put anything you like in a still, light a fire under it, and call the result whiskey.
A very similar result has been arrived at by another Royal Commission which presented its report last night.
Divorce was the topic propounded for this latter body, and it has followed the older example and pronounced, practically, that no restrictions are needed.
Cheap and Easy
As a Liberal morning paper observes, if divorce is bad you should not place it within reach of the rich; if it is good, you should not place it out of the reach of the poor.
And “if” is often a big thing, and this “if” is perhaps one of the biggest in the world; still the Commission and the Liberal leader writer evidently think that there is no real “if” in the case.
So divorce, being so good a thing, is to be as cheap as possible and as easy as possible. Divorce-shops, branch establishments of the big London Stores of perjury and collusion and defilement of every kind, are to be set up all over the country, and any one of six grounds (according to the recommendation of the “Majority” report) is to be sufficient cause for the dissolution of marriage.
The New Formula
So that, in future, “I, N.,” will have to modify his remarks considerably when “I take thee, N., to be my wedded wife.”
The formula in the Prayer Book, a relic of the Dark Ages, babbles somewhat about “till death do us part”; the Lover and the Beloved defy all the powers and evils of this life and of this present world, they defy even their own sins and failures, sickness of body, soul and spirit: nothing but death, the terminator of delights and separator of dear companions shall divide them.
Nous allons changer tout ça: when the recommendations of the Commission are carried into effect the rite of the Solemnisation of Matrimony will no doubt be revised, and the formula will run “till death us do part or till we come under any one of the six grounds of divorce as laid down by the Royal Commission of 1912.”
A Personal View
Well, speaking as a Churchman, a mediævalist, a reactionary, as a man who invariably locks up his silver spoons when he hears the words “humanity,” “advanced ideas,” “enlightened and progressive reform,” and all others such phrases, I need not say that I renounce and abhor and detest the Royal Commission and all its works “like a good ‘un.”
I hope many other people will take the same view: but I confess that I have my fears on the subject.
So many men are naturally polygamous, so many women are naturally polyandrous that the proposals of the Commission will naturally be extremely popular in many quarters.
There are few people who do not prefer laxity to strictness in their hearts: and the great point about these divorce proposals is that they promise a quite enchanting combination of laxity and respectability.
At present a mutual agreement between a man and a woman who wish to get rid of each other is pretty common: henceforth, if we get these “reforms,” it will be easier; and the expenditure of perjury will most likely be less.
Thus many people will be able to enjoy all the charms of loose living, and also the social status conferred by the title of marriage.
Putting aside the Prayer Book and the Law of the Church and others of the “relics of mediævalism, “ I can see two objections from the logical point of view.
The first is that the Report does not go half as far as enough; it does not really look the hard facts fully in the face, though it pretends to do so.
The hard facts are these, that men and women being men and women, are subject to the process called changing one’s mind.
“The Whole Reno”
Edwin, having lived gaily with fair Angelina for half a dozen years, casts a liquerish eye on dark Arabella; and sometimes, I understand, the process is duplex: Angelina on her side is bored to tears with Edwin, and feels sure that she could live in a perfect happiness with Algernon.
This time she is quite sure that there is no mistake; with Algernon she is ready to exchange that mediæval phrase, “Till death do us part,” in whole-hearted sincerity.
Well, if we are to cast off the hard law of Holy Church, let us go the whole Reno, and something more than the whole Reno.
Let it be understood that marriage is a contract between a man and a woman, terminable at any moment at the desire of either party, with reason or without reason.
A Plea for Frankness
What is the use of pretending that two people who cordially dislike each other are “united in holy matrimony,” say the party relaxation.
What indeed? from their point of view. So let us be frank and issue bills of divorcement as easily as we grant dog-licenses.
For these halfway-house recommendations of the Commission there is nothing to be said, unless, indeed, “cruelty” be defined on a liberal basis as meaning anything to which either party has the slightest objection.
Let Edwin be able to say, “She is always praising Marie Corelli,” let Angelina, on her side, declare “He will smoke Egyptians, and he knows I can’t bear the smell”; and let them be sundered—well, not exactly in God’s name. Let us say in Somebody Else’s name, and leave it at that.
My second objection to the finding of the Commission is that it would destroy marriage utterly and entirely.
Marriage, as we have known it up to recent years, is an irrevocable and a lifelong bond between a man and a woman.
A Blow at Marriage
That is what we have always meant when we have used the word: that is what those of us who do not recognise the Divorce Act of 1857 or thereabouts still mean.
And if the recommendations of the Divorce Commission are carried into effect by legislation, and accepted by the great majority of the people, marriage will have ceased to exist.
Men and women may make various arrangements of convenience for cohabiting, but they will not be married: they will no longer be partakers of that mystery or sacrament of which St. Paul spoke.
This may strike some of my readers as very harsh. I think it will be rather a nuisance, but it’s a hard world, and modern science has so far been unsuccessful in discovering a triangle with four sides, that is, a triangle which is not a triangle.
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2 thoughts on “Divorce “Shops””
Fascinating (to use an inadequate word, here) – with an additional thank you for providing the contextual “excerpts which shared space with Machen’s article.”
Machen describes himself as among “those of us who do not recognise the Divorce Act of 1857 or thereabouts”. Not something I have at my mental fingertips – and searching I find “The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857” – about divorce but using the language of “matrimonial causes”. Wikipedia supplies a related “Matrimonial Causes Act” article with a list of another 12 such Acts before Machen wrote this, and yet another 12 after. It would be good to know more of Machen’s reasons for being among those “who do not recognise” the first of these (and presumably its dozen successors). That 1857 Act, assuming Wikipedia is accurate, is one ” moving litigation from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts, establishing a model of marriage based on contract rather than sacrament and widening the availability of divorce beyond those who could afford to bring proceedings for annulment or to promote a private Bill.” My memory (under corection!) of the “private Bill” is that it every divorce on the grounds of adultery required a special Parliamentary Bill to effect it. The 1857 Act effectively reached into the affairs of the Church and transferred them to the ‘secular’ authority of the state, in this instance.
Machen writes, “At present a mutual agreement between a man and a woman who wish to get rid of each other is pretty common: henceforth, if we get these ‘reforms,’ it will be easier; and the expenditure of perjury will most likely be less.” This, I take, refers to their agreeing to assert that one or the other – I think often (in a ‘gentlemanly way’) the husband – has committed adultery (whether either has or not) in order to effect a divorce.
I admired Machen’s phrase “a quite enchanting combination of laxity and respectability” for its use of “enchanting” with its evocation of ‘magical’ illusion used to delude.
The Yorkshire Post observation was excellent, too.
Great comment! And thank you for posting this extra information. I suspect that the you’ve uncovered the reason for Machen’s rejection of the earlier acts. No doubt, he resented any infringement by the State in the Church of England’s traditional authority. Furthermore, the redefinition of marriage as a contract rather than a sacrament would be nothing short of heresy for his High Churchman sensibility. This second point cannot be stressed enough. In effect, legal redefinitions of this sort overturned centuries of tradition on the understanding of marriage.