Entry from August 26, 2014

"The law supposes that your wife acts under your direction." When at the end of Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble the Beadle is informed of what was formerly known as the Principle of Coverture under English Common Law, he replied in words that have echoed down the years since his own time: "If the law supposes that," said the Beadle, "the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience." The Principle of Coverture was abolished in England by the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 and by various states in the US beginning in the 1830s. Interestingly, Virginia considered and rejected legislation to the same effect in the 1840s and only got around to getting rid of coverture after the Civil War. Some of my fellow Virginians may be wishing they’d left things as they were.

For the law may be a ass, but at least, if it were still in effect, it would have spared us the soap opera of the McDonnells’ marriage, as Virginia’s former governor, on trial for corruption, is blaming his wife and the troubles she is alleged to have caused him for everything. Poor Maureen McDonnell may or may not be guilty of the charges against her, and those against her husband as well, but as a reactionary of the old school, I can’t help feeling she is nevertheless a victim of her husband’s unchivalrous decision to say so in public in order to save himself. I wonder if there isn’t lurking somewhere even in Bob McDonnell’s breast, as I’m sure there is in that of many other Virginians besides myself, a suspicion that he is behaving like a cad.

Suck it up, Bob, we old style Virginians want to say. The common law dates back to the Age of Chivalry — the real one, not the Victorian imitation whose incongrous zeal for reform abolished coverture along with other legal relics. And chivalry, whatever the feminists may say, is still the best guide to follow when it comes to relations between the sexes. She may have misbehaved, but you’re responsible, as you yourself have admitted in court. It’s time you lived up to your own standard. Apart from anything else, the governor’s acceptance of this ancient, honorable and pre-Enlightenment principle would have saved him from the unmanly behavior of discussing his marital troubles in public, which is a shame to the woman as well as to the man, even by more Enlightened principles than mine.

Coverture or no coverture, within living memory — and not only in Virginia — this vestige of chivalry was widely accepted, at least among those who aspired to gentlemanly status. One does not bandy a woman’s name. The word "bandy," indeed, meaning to knock to and fro like a tennis ball, was hardly ever used for any other purpose. Even Frank Sinatra, no gentleman by most reckonings, sang of the principle in one of his best-known and best-performed songs (though it was first performed by Fred Astaire in The Sky’s the Limit of 1943), the great Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer paean to drinking and driving called "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)." Sang Frank as the song’s narrator or persona to the silent "Joe," the bartender,

I could tell you a lot

But you’ve got

To be to be true to your code

So make it one for my baby

And one more for the road.

The problem is that you haven’t got to be true to your code anymore. Bob McDonnell can tell Joe and everybody else a lot without anyone’s mentioning in reproach to him any such thing as an outdated "code." And yet there remains a vague sense among those who are (naturally) following the trial obsessively, that he is behaving badly. I just wonder if those, like Petula Dvorak of The Washington Post who are saying that "McDonnell’s betrayal of his wife is anything but moral" wouldn’t find their point of view buttressed by a reminder of that otherwise forgotten "code" by which it is a betrayal.

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