In Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas past shows us the young Ebenezer engaged to be married to Belle. Troubled over the cost of the wedding, he repeatedly delays it, which leads Belle eventually to call off the engagement and marry another. The older Scrooge grievingly rues his mistake. But what if the wedding had gone ahead? Would Belle have stayed with him? And if not, what would a divorce have looked like in 1840?

We can imagine that after a 20 year marriage, a miserly Scrooge has achieved great success in the money-lending business. He and Belle have two sons of 10 and 13. Belle is at the end of her tether in the marriage and wants to end it. How will she fare in trying to prise some money from Mr Scrooge?

First, divorce was a societal taboo in Victorian England. Belle’s social and work prospects as a divorcee would therefore have been very bleak.

Second, until 1857 civil divorce was not actually available to her – Belle would have had to petition parliament, which would have been extremely costly and clearly beyond her means. It was also only in 1882 that wives were allowed to own and control their own property (as a result of the Married Women’s Property Act). This means that having married Scrooge, all of Belle’s property, earnings, and money would have been deemed to belong to him.

But, supposing Belle has a rich friend who can finance her divorce. She would still have had to prove she had grounds to do so. In the Victorian era, a husband could divorce a woman on the grounds of her adultery alone. A woman on the other hand had to prove her husband guilty of adultery combined with cruelty, bigamy, incest, or bestiality. There were very few petitions brought by wives! It was unlikely that evidencing Scrooge’s generally miserly ways would be enough to satisfy a court that was apparently hostile to wives anyway.

As to Belle’s children, again her outlook was grim. The Custody of Infants Act of 1939 was of some help – it would have given Belle the right to petition the court for access to her 10 and 13-year-old. However she would not gain custody as the Act was only relevant to children aged under 7; custody would remain with Scrooge.

Thankfully wives’ prospects in today’s divorce courts these are significantly better. Matrimonial finances are considered to be joint resources. The rights and welfare of children are considered paramount and parents have joint and equality rights and responsibilities. For Belle however, given all the obstacles to unhappy Victorian wives it seems likely that Belle’s own Ghost of Christmas Past would have brought nothing but relief.