The lavish feature film of Anna Karenina out this week starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law shows how 19th century affairs could easily destroy even the strongest of women, and yet aristocratic gentlemen could sire a small army of illegitimate children with impunity. But now the tables have turned and 21st century Anna would have easily concealed her affair and would have taken Karenin to the cleaners in the divorce courts.
The big budget film retells Tolstoy's classic story of Anna, trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man, who finds herself falling in love with the dashing Count Vronsky played by Aaron Johnson. After giving into her passions, she finds herself disgraced, shunned by her peers and eventually abandoned by her lover. Having taken life's greatest gamble and lost, disconsolate Anna ends her life by throwing herself in front of a train.
Being caught having an affair certainly still carries an unpleasant stigma even in the 21st century but nowadays women are far less likely to lose everything if they do eventually decide, as Anna did, to leave their husband.
This is where the huge hypocrisy of the 19th century lies, unlike the fine moral
front that Victorian gentlemen portrayed, in secret they led a life of sexual excess, which today would make us blanch. The Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, a guide book to prostitutes, was a best seller for nearly 50 years in the 18th century, and like the courtesans in my novel, Mistress of My Fate, these women were lavished with jewels, gowns, and even satin lined coaches.
If caught cheating the gentleman rarely faced severe punishment but woe betide a woman who was caught playing away. Tolstoy shows the double standard in action, as society brushes off the indiscretions of Anna Karenina's brother Prince Stepan Oblonsky, while utterly castigating Anna for displaying any outward attraction to Vronsky. Indeed, the social stigma of flaunting an affair as Anna did when she openly went to the opera with her lover was tantamount to social suicide.
Nowadays, women are no longer confined to the parlor, the tea room, or the fish tank-like atmosphere of the opera house. They work, travel, and mix freely with men in every sphere. A woman might just as easily fall for a colleague who she sees at work every day, or with the utmost secrecy via the internet on an extra-marital dating website such as IllicitEncounters.com. Utterly discreet straying is now only a click away! (Imagine what Alexei Karenin would have thought...)
Perhaps one of the most liberating changes for modern women has been the freedom from unrelenting social censure. If a marriage failed in the past, the woman was more likely than not, the one at whom the finger of blame was pointed.
Caroline Norton, who later became a crusader for married women's rights, found herself on the receiving end of her jealous husband's wrath. In 1827 she married the Honorable George Chapple Norton, a violently abusive man who accused her of having an affair with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Although he struggled to find actual proof of adultery, he set out to divorce her and destroy her life. He threw her out of her family home and forbade her from ever seeing her children, who were handed over to the care of servants and apathetic distant relations. Although she was innocent, thanks to the efforts of her husband Mrs Norton was thoroughly disgraced in the eyes of society, and never managed to rehabilitate her name.
Worse still was the fate of Harriet, Lady Mourdant, who was divorced by her husband Sir Charles in 1863. Under duress she admitted to having a series of affairs and he had her confined to an asylum for the rest of her life.
Now in the 21st century, divorce works rather more in a woman's favour even when she's at fault. In 2005, a US judge awarded the former wife of a multimillionaire businessman a divorce settlement worth more than $40 million even though she admitted having affairs with her rock-climbing guide and a man she met on a flight to China.
In addition to a $24 million payment, Susan Sosin got to keep the couple's $3.6 million Manhattan apartment, $2 million Utah ski house and $800,000 home in New York, $6 million in her brokerage accounts, eight cars and $2.9 million in jewellery, including a ruby piece her husband had bought for her but hadn't given to her prior to their divorce. In short she received about 27% of her husband's estate.
So let's re-imagine Tolstoy's tragic tale in the 21st century - a deeply unhappy Anna Karenina begins an affair with the dashing Count Voronsky, a man she might have met through a website like Illicit Encounters. She could either happily continue in her double life with little chance of ever being discovered, or having learned that she is neither trapped in her marriage nor demonised by society for aspiring to love, she divorces the stodgy, ill-suited Karenin, who settles a 1/3rd of his wealth on her. Anna buys nice pad in a swanky part of St Petersburg, gets custody of her children in a no fault split and lives happily ever after with Vronsky.
But that wouldn't have made such a dramatic film, would it?
Hallie Rubenhold is a specialist in social and sexual history. She has written several books on the subject, including Lady Worsley's Whim and The Covent Garden Ladies, which was made into a documentary for the BBC . Her novel, Mistress of My Fate (Corgi; 2012) set in the underworld of Georgian London is out in paperback on September 13th. For more information see: www.hallierubenhold.com