Rules of the Game: Love, courtship, marriage, sex and married life from the 19th century until 1939 (Part 3 – Adultery and Infidelity)

See here for the introduction and disclaimer

Authors’ note: This was meant to be merely in two parts but as part 2 ran into more than 5,000 words we decided to split part 2 further and this is why there is a part 3.

Infidelity and adultery is a perennial subject matter explored in films, TV drama, opera, plays and novels. From Anna Karenina to Lady Chatterley’s Lover down to Hollywood films such as Flesh and the Devil, American Beauty and Unfaithful; among many others, they have sought to explore how and why infidelity flourishes and the effects and consequences that it has.

Today infidelity and adultery is seen as wholly unacceptable, with women’s magazines and newspaper articles revisiting this topic over and over again in an attempt to explain what it is that leads people to stray and advice on how to cope. When such an issue is raised or when another celebrity couple’s marriage or relationship breaks up is reported, the comments are predictable such as blaming the men for the marriage or relationship going belly up and that men who cheat are beyond the pale – “there’s no excuse for cheating” – and the “other woman” as a home wrecker and seeing her as the devil incarnate. Just look at the reams of abuse for instance hurled at the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall when his marriage to Diana Princess of Wales broke down. We live in puritanical times, not only that, we live in times when people are hellbent on demonstrating their own piousness  and right opinions (especially on social media) by casting high-minded judgement on other people and their marriages, often from the safety of a faceless lynchmob. Infidelity and adultery has the capacity to arouse the strongest emotions and it is noticeable that hardly anyone bothers to think in a dispassionate way about the real reasons that lead someone in a relationship to stray.

I believe that there are two reasons for this. One is that despite modern day Western society’s tolerance for relationships of all sorts and with discussions of sex and sexuality much more frank and open in some ways people today seem to be more puritanical than their ancestors. People today like to mock the Victorians as repressed and backward and yet nowadays views on relationships while ostensibly tolerant on one hand can also be intolerant on the other. There seems to be this propensity to see things as fully black or fully white. Is this because as Michel Foucault once asked, that modern society is over-compensating for the “sins” of its ancestors?

Secondly, there’s been a huge change in how people see marriage. A person marries his/her spouse because both parties are in love and each spouse is supposed to fulfil all the other’s  needs – not just sexual needs but social and emotional ones. Hence the proliferation of clichés such as “one true love”, “you complete me”, “one true pairing” and when people find it doesn’t work like that they project their sometimes bitter disappointment onto the person who has let them down. Others who find their relationships and marriage not quite what they expect retreat into fantasies of fictional or celebrity couples. Marriages have a huge burden placed on them that simply wasn’t there 50 or 100 years ago. In the end, this is all tied to the cult of perfection where everything –relationships, marriage, family, friendships, home, career and lifestyle has to be perfect. Anything less than perfect is seen as a tantamount to failure; and no-one likes to think that other people see them as falling short. As Anthony Storr observed, “If we did not look to marriage as the principal source of happiness, fewer marriages would end in tears.”

It is then surprising to many people today if they find out that people in the past didn’t marry for the reasons cited above and for them marriage was not regarded as the principal source of happiness. Of course, many people in the past liked to think they married for love but again there was no expectation that their spouse would fulfil all their needs. This is especially true with the aristocracy and working classes for whom marriage was for reasons of economy as well as for politics and status for the royals and the aristocracy. In light of this, adultery was a socially sanctioned safety valve especially in a time when divorce was near impossible and deeply scandalous.

Just as there were rules to be followed and observed during courtship, so there was another set of rules to be followed with regards to married couples and their activities. These rules concerned mostly with adultery which many couples resorted to as it was accepted as routine among the British upper classes; the only qualification was that one must keep out of the divorce court and the newspapers. In this spirit society tolerated a variety of relationships involving married people providing that certain decencies were observed. It was a well-established practice among the upper classes to indulge in platonic affairs once a wife had become bored with her marriage and had done her duty by providing children. And discretion meant that affairs were strictly confined to the same social circles that an upper class couple moved around. These rules were created because of the notion that appearances have to be kept up at all times. Nothing must be allowed to spoil in Anita Leslie’s words the “tenor of family life, the graciousness and dignity which all enjoyed.” As sex was meant to be a private issue, nothing was more sordid and scandalous when revelations appeared in the papers and during divorce proceedings.

These rules would now be seen as hypocritical and in today’s society where we are used to revelations involving the marital shenanigans of celebrity couples when their relationships break down, laughable. However it is easy to forget that the etiquette governing human behaviour and relationships between people were rigid and this was true of all classes. Their behaviour and pattern of speech might look and sound artificial and stilted but they remind us that in the past there was a strict demarcation line between the public and the private. In short, they could be summarised in this one sentence – everything can be known but nothing must be said. Victorian and Edwardian society were rife with hypocrisy as Barstow points out: it was virtually impossible to be as good as the Victorians pretended to be, but the grim fate that had befallen the French aristocracy was still within living memory, and that was enough to convince their British counterparts that they should keep their own peccadilloes and extravagances well hidden. Fear that the press would foment unrest among the labouring masses upon whom their incomes and comforts depended made them pretend to a quite unrealistic degree of piety and decorum, while secretly indulging their vices just as they had always done…love affairs were therefore conducted with discretion and dignity. No careless female hand might brush the shoulder of the man who had spent most of the previous night in her bed, nor were endearments permitted in public.

The merry go round of marital relations and adultery was  a game and like every other game there were rules to be observed. As Anita Leslie observed:

“The game never became casual. The rules were as strict and complicated as those of chess, and a mistake meant banishment. If the consort Alexandra is regarded as Queen, her role was never to move at all, to remain standing upright in the centre of the board. The King could move in all directions as far as he wished and even out of turn. Rules for other pieces differed. Unmarried girls were kept off the board and bishops could not compete with knights, though they attended the same house parties. As for the pawns – those self-important ladies on whom the whole game depended – one must realise that their moves were very restricted indeed. They must hop, slide, and capture in secret.”

Once a woman was married, she could not be approached for a liaison until she had borne her husband at least a son or two to secure the family line. Only then could she withdraw from sexual relations with her husband and both parties were free to live how they chose provided that it was discreet – the eleventh commandment of Society (with a capital S) was “Thou shalt not cause a scandal.” Any children born out of an affair could be quietly absorbed into the family provided they were born during the tail end of a woman’s childbearing years where their chances of inheriting the title and estate were remote or non-existent. As long as high-society married women followed those rules of property protection and kept absolute discretion, they could do what they liked. The boundary between respectability and shame was not how a woman behaved but whether she was discovered. If so, a husband could exercise his right to a divorce; for a man to divorce his wife, she had to be proved to have committed adultery. Needless to say, women did not have that freedom – they had to prove their husbands had not only committed adultery but incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion.

A man having an affair would choose another married woman from the same social circle as this was thought to be the safer choice. Edward VII both as Prince of Wales and as King observed this rule scrupulously. His mistresses were mostly drawn from the upper classes such as the Countess of Warwick, the Hon Mrs George Keppel, the Countess of Aylesford and Lady Mordaunt (although the last two ended in disaster and scandal). Many of them were also drawn from his own circle of friends as it was seen as a form of reciprocity, if the king took mistresses from among his friends wives then so to could those of his minions with both the time and the inclination (although many of the aristocracy were appalled by his behaviour). Married women were safer because they were not going to trap a man into marriage and could more or less be counted upon to remain discreet, and if they became pregnant the child could be incorporated within their existing family.


by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), published by  Rotary Photographic Co Ltd, bromide postcard print, 1902


Affairs were conducted in Victorian style with weekend house parties in labyrinthine mansions, golden afternoons on immaculate green lawns with croquet, tea and cucumber sandwiches, tiny smiles during dinner, adjoining bedrooms. It was, along with hunting, shooting, fishing and charitable works, one of the ways in which those who did not have to work for a living could fill their afternoons.

The term “adultery” applied only to married women, who were more likely than unmarried women to pass the hours between five and seven ( the “cinq a sept”) in the pattern set by the Prince of Wales. The choice for this hour of day was purely practical. It took considerable time for a lady to unbutton and unlace her layers of corsets and underskirts, let alone button and lace them up again. Lovers therefore visited just after tea, when ladies were undressing to change their afternoon clothes for their evening ones. Husbands going away to hunt, shoot and fish with their friends were also perfect opportunities for women to invite their lovers to tea. Other ways by which they could meet are as guests at a house party organised by a sympathetic hostess who approved of the affair and could make discreet arrangements so that the lovers could be together after everyone had retired for the night then go on to their separate ways before the servants woke up so that there was nothing suspicious.

Many and various were the stratagems adopted to provide opportunities for privacy for the interested parties. An admirer might whisper a suggestion for a rendezvous…a note might be passed from valet to maid, or an accidental on purpose meeting on the stairs might decide the time and place.

– Barstow p 59

Of course not all aristocratic marriages were unhappy, there were some that were happy but there was the view that men and women had their own spheres and did not expect to be in each other’s pockets all the time. A married couple had their own interests, friends and work; they came together for familial, social and public duties so it was no big deal that couples spent plenty of time apart happily married or not. The expectation that people would have an affair eventually was the default, fidelity was regarded as middle class and one or both spouses having affairs did not mean they were in an unhappy marriage as Osborne observes:

Regardless of each individual’s private practice, all had been brought up to regard marital fidelity as infra dig and extramarital sex as a normal course of behaviour. The key difference between good and bad behaviour was discretion and remaining tight lipped about others. According to Edwardian mores, having a passing affair with a married friend was accepted behaviour.

Shocking as it is to our modern day sensibilities, it was believed and there is more than enough evidence to support the view that a marriage could be happy and loving despite affairs on either or both sides. As Margot Asquith once wrote, “No woman should expect to be the only woman in her husband’s life”, and  women such as Queen Alexandra, Edith Marchioness of Londonderry, Lady Diana Cooper, the Duchess of Connaught among others were examples of women who accepted their husband’s infidelities. For Queen Alexandra, Lady Londonderry and Lady Diana they tolerated their husband’s mistresses because it did not interfere with their relationship with their husbands while for the Duchess of Connaught, her husband’s affair with Lady Leslie resulted into a friendship between the two women and one that was appreciated by the introverted and shy duchess; and Lady Diana Cooper’s friends reported said that the problem with having an affair with Duff Cooper was that when it ended his wife would call to commiserate with them.


The middle classes and the Church might fulminate against adultery and denounce the upper classes (and even the working classes) as debased and debauched but they were ignored by the aristocracy. Affairs were only tolerated so long as it was conducted within the rules and this is for instance the reason why the 7th Marquess of Londonderry was not censured for his affairs as he scrupulously adhered to the rules and was in his own way a devoted husband to his wife. The same could be said of the noted diplomat and diarist Duff Cooper another serial philanderer whose affairs took place with the full knowledge of his wife Lady Diana. As Martin Pugh wrote of the Cooper marriage:

Passionate, charming and chivalrous, Cooper reportedly embarked on his first marital affair during the honeymoon in Venice; he loved the chase, the secret assignations, the love letters and the challenge of juggling three or four flirtations simultaneously. He got off lightly because his abandoned lovers never resented him. Also he always returned to his wife, Diana, who was not especially interested in sex and tolerated his philanderings: ‘I don’t mind adultery,’ she said, ‘I’m not a jealous nature.’ Not surprisingly Duff appreciated her attitude: ‘She is the only person who is worth making love to, who understands the game and how to play it,’ he once said.”

It was not the same with King Edward VII when Prince of Wales as he regularly attracted censure from the aristocracy and middle class due to being named in two high profile divorce cases (the Mordaunts and Aylesfords) which mocked not only the stern code of respectability that his parents adhered to and the Church preached but also humiliated his wife and flouted the unspoken rules of the game.

Divorce was the ultimate scandal and disgrace. Unlike today where scandals are a staple feature in the media, during the late 19th and early 20th century, countless scandals bubbled just below the public’s line of vision, and that is where on the whole they were kept. Couples who were unhappily married were expected to put up and shut up, quietly arranging their lives to live apart if necessary. Before the First World War only in the very worst cases did couples divorce, in the process miring themselves and their children in scandal; it was not as it is today, a judge rubber stamping a pile of decree nisi with the divorcing couple not even in court. The divorcing couple had to stand up in court and publicly state the reasons why their marriage had broken down, knowing that their marital woes would be picked over in the papers and widely discussed among both their friends and worse, total strangers. It also meant exclusion and ostracism from high society – their children’s marriage prospects harmed, no invitations to house parties, were excluded at Court and denied admission to places such as the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. No-one was spared not even if there were good grounds for the divorce such as Albertha Duchess of Marlborough (she insisted on being known as Albertha Marchioness of Blandford after the divorce) who after years of putting up with her husband’s infidelities was finally granted a divorce on the grounds of his cruelty. She was clearly the innocent party and yet she faced exclusion from high society. A woman like Albertha Marlborough was seen as spoiling everyone else’s entitlement to fun as once affairs had the potential to lead to divorce it dangerously upped the stakes of illicit sex; and she had opened her bedroom doors to the eyes of the public who read the newspapers.

Victorian and Edwardian norms persisted even after the First World War and into the 1960s. The “liberation” during the so-called Roaring Twenties and beyond was only illusory as the likes of the Duke of Westminster, the 9th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Idina Wallace and the Hon Mrs Bryan Guinness found out to their cost as their affairs and subsequent divorces excluded them from society and court. Despite the increase in the number of divorces, several couples such as Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten and the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his wife Lady Dorothy decided to make the most of their unhappy marriages with both Edwina Mountbatten and Lady Dorothy embarking on affairs that despite teetering on the edge of the indiscreet were still more or less kept out of the press.

In light of this, the outrage over Downton Abbey’s series two story line that featured Robert and the housemaid Jane Moorsum demonstrates how little the viewers know the history behind such affairs and how the PR over the story line (“ultimate betrayal”) has been anchored in a ahistorical way and tapped into 21st century sensibilities. Contrary to what we think now such an affair was not seen as a scandal; Robert and Cora have been married for years, both have done their duty and have nothing left to prove. In effect they are free to do what they want within the rules of the game; something Cora tacitly acknowledges in series 5 after their falling out over Simon Bricker when she demands that Robert return to their bedroom, telling him that if he has ever since their marriage let a flirtation turn serious, or led a woman to believe that he is ready for an affair, then he has no right to censure her.

432032_243974609026065_418078578_n   Cora S5

Cora is not reproaching Robert for any affair he might have had in the past – she is admitting that it might have happened by the unspoken rules that govern their class and that she accepts those rules. What she is doing is pointing out that if that is what he has done in the past then he is being hypocritical in objecting to her apparently doing the same.  Cora there is pretty much saying she thinks Robert overstepped the line with another woman and that she accepts not only the possibility but that she is untroubled by it. In Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party there is an exchange between a married couple, both of whom have had affairs:

“We made an agreement and I have kept to it. You started it, with that disgusting old hag in Maida Vale.”

“It is quite usual for men to have distractions which don’t affect their devotion to their wives -” and that was the crux.  As Frances Osborne says:

Before the war and unfaithful Edwardian husband showed his love for his wife by putting her first in public and only, and discreetly, making love to married women. Extra marital affairs had been accepted because if no-one divorced, they were just a passing thing and could not break a marriage.

And in series 2 Cora apologises for neglecting Robert – the subtext here is that the neglect is sexual as well as not having time for him during the day – and under those circumstances no-one would blame him for seeking comfort elsewhere. The health of a marriage was seen as the wife’s concern and that if her husband was unhappy in their marriage then she was at fault.

Several peers if they didn’t have a married peeress would have a housemaid as a mistress instead. Like married women, they were seen as safer and there was the bonus that if one wasn’t willing then another one would be, they came cheap and were easily bought off. If she got pregnant she received the blame while the man more or less got away scot free. Men, the universally accepted wisdom ran, were creatures with appetites that had to be satisfied, and they could not be expected to restrain themselves.

Hence when it comes to analysing the life and loves of people in the past and how both real life and fictional characters behaved, one should remember that to hold them to the standards of the present does them a disservice as people who are of their time, however alien that seems to a modern viewer.

Notes on pictures:

1. Edward VII and Alice Keppel – available at Wikipedia

2. Daisy Warwick –

3. Duff and Diana Cooper –

4. Downton Abbey pictures – various fan sites

Further Reading:

Phillida Barstow. The English Country House Party (London, 1989)

Frances Osborne. The Bolter (London, 2008)

Anita Leslie. Edwardians in Love (London, 1974)

Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 2004) originally published as Circe: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (1989)

Martin Pugh. We Danced all Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2008)

Jane Ridley. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (London, 2012)

Robert K. Massie. Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the coming of the Great War (London, 1991)

Claudia Renton. Those Wild Wyndhams (London, 2014)

Anthony Storr. Solitude (London, 1997)

Lyndsy Spence. Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, the Thirties Socialite (London, 2015)

Alex Von Tunzelmann. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (London, 2008)

Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality vol. 1 The Will to Knowledge (London, 1976)

Lucinda Hawksley. The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter (London, 2013)

Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure – BBC2 documentary first telecast on 23 March 2010