In February 1823, readers of the Times were treated to a detailed account of the goings-on in the home of the third Earl of Portsmouth and his wife of ten years, Mary Anne Hanson. She had for some time been having an affair with William Rowland Alder, a lawyer. The pair abused and mocked Lord Portsmouth, both physically and mentally, even making him a spectator to their fornication. These details came to light through a legal instrument known as a 'commission in lunacy', whose roots go back to the 14th century, but which became prominent in the 19th, before fading away after the First World War. It was used mainly by wealthy families intent on demonstrating that one of their members was incapable of managing his affairs. Women, too, were sometimes subjected to commissions in lunacy, but less often, since married women were not held to have property rights that anyone might wish to divest them of. In the Lord Portsmouth case, the purpose was to prove that he had been incapable of managing his own affairs at the time he married Mary Anne, and that the marriage should therefore be dissolved. The story of his having been forced to witness the debauchery was invoked by counsel to show that only a madman could have failed to understand what was taking place in his family home.
LRB 17 August 2006 | PDF Download