GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

War Marriages and Divorce

December 15 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

War Marriages and Divorce

December 15 1944

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

GENERAL ARTICLES

War Marriages and Divorce

I HAVE just come from a strange debate in the House of Commons in which we discussed the human problem of wartime marriages of British girls with soldiers from countries across the Channel and the seas. It may seem odd that in the final stuges of the Battle of Europe we should give the time to such a subject but it is the duty of a Parliament to legislate for all pressing problems and to forestall, if possible, the harvest of disillusionment which must arise when the guns are finally at rest.

It should be realized that for Britain this has been unlike any war which was ever fought before. Compare it for example with the last one. In 1914-1918, except for a few Zeppelin raids, England was untouched and it was a case of normal life at home with the soldiers fighting abroad. We had complete control of the seas, France was intact, leave from the Western Front was automatic and regular, while even the troops fighting in the Middle East came home at intervals to visit their families. When America entered the war her troops went mostly to France. Canadians, too, were in constant action and we had no parallel to the long period of this war when t he Canadian Army was held impatiently at the leash waiting for its chance.

In this war Britain has been the one country in which the Canadians and Americans could assemble their forces for the invasion of Europe, just as it was the only rallying point for the soldiers of Free France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In the best sense of the word Britain has endured an invasion on a huge scale. This teeming Island has been crowded as never before in its history.

During four long years the Continent of Europe was sealed against the Allies, four years during which the soldiers from occupied countries who were here heard little or nothing from home. Loneliness and anxiety numbed their emotions until they turned for comfort and companionship to the people among whom they had come to live.

There is no use being mealymouthed about it. To whom does a lonely man look for comfort and companionship? Even Napoleon, who was unusually self-sufficient, admitted that women were the relaxation of the warrior. That was true when Caesar launched his legions against the world. It is just as true now that Eisenhower is hurling his Armies against Germany. The natural companion of man is woman.

Love is a complicated business, as Shaw said in his indifferent play, “Too True To Be Good,” when he tried to show how the lower self and the higher self constantly cross each other’s frontiers. The love of man for woman is not merely biological and elemental, guaranteeing the continuity of the human race, but it is enriched and hallowed by idealism, tenderness, poetry and sacrifice. In a war all these things are intensified. It is not within the gift of the young to clothe their emotions with philosophy; if it were they would probably realize that because they face death before their time they long to leave behind them a wife, a home, perhaps a child, as something enduring to mark that they had been. We are creatures of emotion and war stirs emotions bevond their normal confines.

There have been something like a million and a half marriages in Britain during the last five years. The Canadians alone have married British girls at the rate of 15 a deiy. The Americans, despite official discouragement, have married in large numbers, and the Poles are a good third. The Irish, the Dutch, and the Belgians have added their quota, although the French have lagged behind.

Now with the successful invasion of Europe these wartime husbands have nearly all departed and separation is playing its dual and unpredictable role. In fact you can take your choice of those two black-eyed axioms: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” or, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Many of these marriages, let us hope the great majority, will turn out well but it would be a sanguine man indeed who would refuse to recognize that a proportion of them are doomed to disaster. And this is where the British Parliament decided to come in.

According to British law a woman, on marriage, takes the nationality of the man she marries. Therefore in the matter of divorce she would only be able to sue in the Courts of the country in which the husband lives. It was the House of Lords which decided that we should face the fact that there will be a lot of divorces arising out of the war and that it had better do something about it. So the Lords brought in a Bill and in due course it reached us in the Commons.

I must now explain that in Britain no one, except under highly exceptional circumstances, can apply for a divorce until three years after the date of the marriage. This was a safeguard introduced when A, P. Herbert, that gallant reformer, brought in a private Bill in 1987 which extended the causes for divorce to cruelty, desertion and insanity instead of it being dependent on adultery alone. On the whole the three years’ clause was wise and has worked to the good of the community.

But, says the House of Lords, this is going to be very hard on a British girl whose American husband goes back home, resumes his old loves, and has no intention of continuing his marriage with his British wife. (The word “American” is merely explicatory and means any overseas husband.) Therefore, say the Lords, the first thing to do is to enact that until a British wife has lived with her overseas husband in his own country she shall retain her British nationality and thus have access to the British Divorce Courts.

I must remind my Roman Catholic readers, especially, that we are not discussing now the merits or the evils of divorce. Divorce is permitted by British law and our sole concern in Parliament is to see that the workings of that law are rendered fair and equitable. On that basis, therefore, we must all agree that it was wise to legislate so that the British wife retaint'd her nationality as long as she was domiciled in this country.

Up to that point the Lords had done well and we in the Commons would have given our assent without discussion. But the Upper House had not stopped at that and, in my opinion, took the grave step of declaring that in the case of a British wife married to an overseas husband the three years' clause should not apply. In other words she could ask for divorce on the grounds of infidelity one week after her marriage if she so desired.

It is one thing for the Lord Chancellor to sit in robed dignity with his legal advisers and improve the law but it is quite another affair when these wellmeant improvements are translated into human equations.

Let us take for example the imaginary cases of Miss Sally Green and Miss Ethel Smith, who live in adjoining houses on Acacia Road in a London suburb. They are close friends, of equal attractiveness and character. One night while helping at the canteen Sally meets a Pole and Ethel meets an English soldier from Manchester. They all fall in love, and just to add glamour

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to the story they are married on the same day and in the same church. Shortly afterward both husbands are sent to Italy where, after a time, they fall in love with two girls (the nationality does not matter) and write home to their wives that their feelings have changed and they do not intend to come back to them.

Under this law Ethel Smith can apply at once for a divorce from her Pole, who would eagerly supply proofs of his infidelity, and emerge a free woman to marry agfdn. But what about Sally Green? She must wait for three years. Those three years may be her last opportunity to found a home for herself, since this war, like all wars, will add to the number of surplus women. One does not need the imagination of a novelist to realize the bitter, rankling sense of injustice which will invade Acacia Road.

But, says the Government, there is always the chance of reconciliation when the erring British husband comes back to this country. Besides there are the two families concerned, his and hers, who might help to bring this about.

“Since when did ‘in-laws’ help to bring about reconciliation?” snapped A. P. Herbert.

Rebuked by Scotsman

At this point I raised in the House another aspect of the matter, which seemed to be one that the Lord Chancellor and his cronies had utterly failed to foresee. Since war does produce increased emotionalism the British Government is now going to say to lightheaded young women (and we are not without them in this country): “Don’t worry too much

about marrying a man from overseas. Supposing the marriage does go wrong you can apply to the Courts, which will deal with your case right away.” I even argued that the Government was introducing the facilities of Reno into British marriage, a remark which brought a frown from the attorneygeneral and a scathing denunciation from a Scottish member, who said that l was insulting British womanhood.

Undaunted by this a small group of us supported an Amendment that the three years’ delay clause should be kept and applied to all marriages, but

the Government would not give way. So we went into the Lobbies and to the number of 38 voted against the Government, which brought more frowns from the Whips.

But even this did not end the complexities and difficulties which the Lord Chancellor had precipitated by this Bill. Take, for example, the marriage with an overseas soldier which might have gone wrong but on his return to his own country has some chance of success providing the wife joins him and tries to make a go of it.

“We must warn you,” says the Government in this Bill, “that if you live with your husband as a resident in his country for even one day you will cease to be a British subject and will not have access to British Courts.” This would take on a particularly grave character if the husband lived in Newfoundland or in Eire, where divorce is impossible. The wife who has never joined her husband in either of those countries and has cause for divorce can be freed at once by the British Courts. But if by reason of trying to make the marriage a success she goes to Newfoundland or Eire and does her best to fulfill her duties to her husband and her conscience she can never afterward secure a divorce, no matter what crimes he commits or to what depths of profligacy and infidelity he sinks. There is no release from her vows until death intervenes.

I did not like this Bill at all, although, in fairness, one must concede that it was created to meet a difficult and urgent situation arising out of the unnatural conditions of war. In my opinion the Government should have contented itself by enacting that until a British wife has lived with her husband in the country of his domicile she retains her British nationality. Better still would have been an act to decree that a British woman retains her nationality always and under any circumstances.

But the three-year clause should have remained. The sanctity of marriage is the most important cornerstone of a Christian Democracy. Those who enter into it lightly and with the thought that it can be easily dissolved are true neither to their God nor their country. However the Bill has passed and will shortly become law. We must try to make it work for as much good and as little harm as possible.

Just one last word and I am finished. In what I have written I have dealt

impersonally with these overseas marriages but now I want to dwell for a moment on the question of the British girls who have married Canadians.

I know that every normal Canadian boy who comes overseas left a girl behind him, perhaps more than one. Now he is going to bring back a British girl as his wife. The wife will be a stranger in a strange land and she will need all the kindness and understanding and patience that you can give her.

Remember that your son or brother or sweetheart in his love of Canada probably drew a long bow and made things seem rather rosier than they will actually prove. Remember that she will probably do the same thing when she gets to Canada and will begin to believe that back home she lived for

Ascot week, went to St. Moritz for j Christmas and Monte Carlo in Februj ary and mingled with people of social ! consequence. It will be nervousness ; that will make her do this, plus a sturdy pride in Britain and an aching loneliness for it.

But she is grand stuff really. She has all kinds of courage and will breed splendid children. And once she is tuned to the rhythm of Canadian life she will develop her real womanhood and prove that the Canadian boy was right when he said: “This is the girl I want as a wife.”

We must save as many marriages as possible. That at least is one urgent fact that emerges from the none-toowise Bill which the House of Lords sent to us this week.