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The Disappearance of Maria Glen by Naomi Clifford

Naomi Clifford
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.'” Jane Austen famously wrote as the opening of Pride and Prejudice, a novel set in the Regency period. It was also true that a single man without a fortune needed both, and one way to achieve this was through marriage. Failing that, if families did not approve but the woman consented, elopement outside the jurisdiction of the Marriage Acts – most famously to Gretna Green. If the woman of fortune did not consent, there remained the option of abduction and forced marriage with the assistance of an amenable priest. This was effective because before female emancipation a wife was a chattel of her husband and her loot became his. Unsurprisingly abductions were not unknown and led to salacious law suits that seized the public eye.

The disappearance of Maria Glenn was one of the most famous cases and is, unsurprisingly, the subject of this book. Maria was likely to inherit a fortune from an uncle who had plantations in Jamaica. Following the death of her father from fever she was sent to England to live with another uncle who was a barrister in Taunton. For health reasons she went to stay on a farm with her younger cousins and while in there she was (allegedly) abducted by the farmer’s son. She was subsequently recovered. The abductors were known, arrested and prosecuted. The facts of the abduction are odd, the conduct of the legal process bizarre. It became a cause celebre and provided income for many newspapers for years.

The author has done a fine job in producing this story from the archives, marshalling the facts and setting them down chronologically. She has also provided sufficient background information for the reader to grasp the context – unsurprising given her journalistic origins. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I found reading the book a real chore; that the characters failed to engage me is not the author’s fault and I am not a Regency addict, nor an admirer of Jane Austen so I may not be the target audience.

However, the text was sometimes obscure, and the frequent quotations disjoint the flow. Regency English, particularly in court, is discordant when set alongside modern prose. There are bits of padding (what possible interest or relevance does the construction method of Westminster Hall’s roof trusses have to either a trial several hundred years after it was built, or a retelling of hat trial another two centuries?) The English is at times clumsy and explanations all to frequently interrupt the flow. Perhaps the author and editor should have used footnotes.

The book is perhaps a counterpoint to excessive Regency romances, (in my opinion a much needed genre), but that is all that there is to commend it.
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