To Wed or Not to Wed?

The Merry Widow is a classic operetta—frothy, frivolous, and fun. But even a piece of light-hearted entertainment can offer us serious insights into its historical and cultural context. The relations between men and women, especially leading up to and within marriage, are a dominant theme in The Merry Widow, and the contrasting experiences of two real-life 19th-century women can offer the modern opera-goer a glimpse into the world that Hanna (and countless women before her) had to navigate and inhabit.


Biographical Sketch: Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born in 1777 in France and married the well-to-do wine and textile merchant François Clicquot at the age of 21. But when her husband died just six years later, the still youthful Barbe-Nicole found herself a widow—or veuve (“voov”) in French.

A single mother, the Widow Clicquot might have sought a second marriage to support herself and her daughter. Instead, she decided to follow a different path. She already knew of several successful widows in the wine industry: There was Dame Geoffrey, the widow of a local tax collector, who supplied wine to the famous Moët family. There was the widow Germon, a successful wine broker in the late 18th century who bottled her own sparkling wines. And there were the widows Robert and Blanc, who had found success in the wine industry following their husbands’ deaths.

Using these models and others like them, the Widow Clicquot committed herself to her husband's failing company. She was in a unique situation. In the French culture of her time, widows were granted both the social freedoms of married women and the financial freedoms enjoyed by men. Under the Napoleonic Code, a married woman had no legal identity and thus could not enter into contracts; by contrast, a widow could make her own financial and legal decisions.

Thanks to these newfound legal rights, her father-in-law’s financial support, and the social connections of her own upper-class family, the Widow Clicquot had the freedom, influence, and funding she needed to make her late husband’s company prosper. She developed a new method for clarifying Champagne—removing unpleasant sediments that were a byproduct of the production process—so that her wine, unlike that of her competitors, was crystal clear. And she gave her business a new name: Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and Company.

The task ahead of the Widow Clicquot was not easy. The Napoleonic Wars were raging across Europe, making it difficult to ship her Champagne abroad. Nevertheless, she persisted. In a remarkable maneuver, she managed to get a shipment through a blockade to Russia; her wine would dominate the Russian Champagne market for the next 50 years.

By the time she was 40, the Widow Clicquot was one of the wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs—male or female—in Europe. She was also one of the first businesswomen to lead an international company. She remained a major figure in the wine industry until her death at age 88, and today, Veuve Clicquot Champagne is still one of the most highly recognized wine brands anywhere in the world.

Primary Source: The Napoleonic Code

The Napoleonic Code, also known as the French Civil Code, was a set of laws instituted in post-revolutionary France. As Napoleon expanded his control across Europe, he also spread the influence of this set of laws. The laws and practices regarding women’s rights in marriage in countries from Italy to Poland reflected the Napoleonic Code for more than 150 years.

CHAPTER VI. Of the respective Rights and Duties of Married Persons.

  • Married persons owe to each other fidelity, succor, assistance.
  • The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband.
  • The wife is obliged to live with her husband, and to follow him to every place where he may judge it convenient to reside: the husband is obliged to receive her, and to furnish her with everything necessary for the wants of life, according to his means and station.
  • The wife cannot plead in her own name, without the authority of her husband, even though she should be a public trader, or non-communicant, or separate in property.
  • The authority of the husband is not necessary when the wife is prosecuted in a criminal matter, or relating to police.
  • A wife, although non-communicant or separate in property, cannot give, alienate, pledge, or acquire by free or chargeable title, without the concurrence of her husband in the act, or his consent in writing.
  • If the husband refuse to authorize his wife to plead in her own name, the judge may give her authority.
  • If the husband refuse to authorize his wife to pass an act, the wife may cause her husband to be cited directly before the court of first instance, of the circle of their common domicile, which may give or refuse its authority, after the husband shall have been heard, or duly summoned before the chamber of council.
  • The wife, if she is a public trader, may, without the authority of her husband, bind herself for that which concerns her trade; and in the said case she binds also her husband, if there be a community between them. She is not reputed a public trader, if she merely retail goods in her husband’s trade, but only when she carries on a separate business.
  • When the husband is subjected to a condemnation, carrying with it an afflictive or infamous punishment, although it may have been pronounced merely for contumacy, the wife, though of age, cannot, during the continuance of such punishment, plead in her own name or contract, until after authority given by the judge, who may in such case give his authority, without hearing or summoning the husband.
  • If the husband is interdicted or absent, the judge, on cognizance of the cause, may authorize his wife either to plead in her own name or to contract.
  • Every general authority, though stipulated by the contract of marriage, is invalid, except as respects the administration of the property of the wife.
  • If the husband is a minor, the authority of the judge is necessary for his wife, either to appear in court, or to contract.
  • A nullity, founded on defect of authority, can only be opposed by the wife, by the husband, or by their heirs.
  • The wife may make a will without the authority of her husband.

Biographical Sketch: Caroline Norton

In 1836, English socialite and writer Caroline Norton left home to visit her sister. When she returned, she found her husband, George Chapple Norton, had sent her children to stay with his cousin and ordered his servants not to let her back into her house.

According to English common law, George was well within his rights: The law specifically allowed husbands to keep their wives away from their children. It also allowed George to lay claim to everything Caroline had left behind, including her personal correspondence, clothing, and jewelry. George then sued Caroline for divorce, claiming she had been unfaithful (the only legal grounds for divorce in England at that time). Under the law, Caroline was not permitted to testify at—or even attend—the trial.

Unable to present any evidence of Caroline’s supposed guilt, George lost his divorce suit. Caroline, meanwhile, had no desire to remain married, so she approached a team of lawyers about initiating her own divorce proceedings. What she learned horrified her: Under English law, only a husband could file for divorce. Since George had already lost his case, divorce was effectively off the table for the couple. Even worse, Caroline learned that her husband had the legal right to demand sole custody of their children, an outcome that would have forbidden Caroline even to see her kids.

Caroline refused to accept this legal status quo. A passionate and capable speaker and writer, she soon set about lobbying for legal reform, composing a series of political pamphlets advocating changes in marital and custody law, including the “open letter to Queen Victoria,” excerpted below.

Eventually, a new law was passed. Now, mothers were allowed to appeal for custody of children under the age of seven, as well as the right to see their children under the age of 16. Unfortunately, despite Caroline’s remarkable victory, English custody law was powerless to reunite her with her children: Her husband had taken them to Scotland, where English laws didn’t apply. George also remained entitled to much of her income, including the money she earned from her political writing.

Caroline Norton continued to write political pamphlets publicizing the inequities of the law. Her lived experience, her willingness to fight for her cause, and her powerful and passionate voice helped change how English laws treated and viewed women—both in the home and beyond.

Primary Source: Caroline Norton’s Letter to Queen Victoria  (excerpts)

A letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's marriage and divorce bill.
by the Hon. Mrs. Norton.

On Tuesday, June 13th, of last session, Lord Chancellor Cranworth brought forward a measure for the reform of the Marriage laws of England; which […] was afterwards withdrawn. In March, 1855, in this present session, the Solicitor General stated, that a bill on the same subject was "nearly prepared." [But this bill has not yet arrived, and] as one who has grievously suffered, and is still suffering, under the present imperfect state of the law, I address your Majesty on the subject. […]

  • A married woman in England has no legal existence:her being is absorbed in that of her husband. Years of separation or desertion cannot alter this position. Unless divorced by special enactment in the House of Lords, the legal fiction holds her to be "one" with her husband, even though she may never see or hear of him.
  • She has no possessions, unless by special settlement; her property is his […] An English wife has no legal right even to her clothes or ornaments; her husband may take them and sell them if he pleases, even though they be the gifts of relatives or friends, or bought before marriage.
  • An English wife cannot make a will. She may have children or kindred whom she may earnestly desire to benefit; she may be separated from her husband, who may be living with a mistress; no matter: The law gives what she has to him, and no will she could make would be valid.
  • An English wife cannot legally claim her own earnings. Whether wages for manual labour, or payment for intellectual exertion, whether she weed potatoes, or keep a school, her salary is the husband's. […]
  • An English wife may not leave her husband's house. Not only can he sue her for “restitution of conjugal rights,” but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge […] and carry her away by force, with or without the aid of the police.
  • If the wife sue for separation for cruelty, it must be "cruelty that endangers life or limb," and if she has once forgiven, or, in legal phrase, “condoned” his offences, she cannot plead them. […]
  • If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself. She has no means of proving the falsehood of his allegations. She is not represented by attorney, nor permitted to be considered a party to the suit. […]
  • If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce herso as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband a vinculo [from matrimony], however profligate he may be. […]
  • She cannot sign a lease, or transact responsible business.
  • Her being, on the other hand, of spotless character, and without reproach, gives her no advantage in law. She may have withdrawn from his roof […] having suffered personal violence at his hands […] and being able to prove it by unimpeachable testimony: or he may have shut the doors of her house against her: all this is quite immaterial: the law takes no cognisance of which [i.e., who] is to blame. As her husband, he has a right to all that is hers: as his wife, she has no right to anything that is his. As her husband, he may divorce her (if truth or false swearing can do it): as his wife, the utmost "divorce" she could obtain, is permission to reside alone.

Critical Inquiry
Historians distinguish between two kinds of sources: “Primary” historical sources are documents dating from the period in question, while “secondary” historical sources are materials written by historians or other observers about the period in question. In this Deep Dive, the Napoleonic Code and Caroline Norton’s letter are examples of primary sources, while the short biographies of each woman are examples of secondary sources. Why might it be important to differentiate between primary and secondary sources? When might we want to refer to secondary sources? When might we prefer primary sources?