Friday, August 19, 2011
Divorce, English and Italian Style
In a Law and Order episode from about ten years ago, an affluent married woman had been murdered on the Upper West Side and the police have no clues. The detectives are talking about how to proceed, and Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), the older and more jaded of the two, says the husband should be the prime suspect.
“Why the husband?” asks his partner. “What’s the motive?”
To which Lenny replies, “They were married, weren’t they?”
That scene popped into my mind after a couple of things I recently read. One was a delightful and sadly forgotten legal satire called Holy Deadlock by A.P. Herbert, published in England in 1934. The target of its ridicule was the English divorce laws, which were nonsensical even by the standard of the times and are utterly incomprehensible to a reader today.
The only grounds for divorce back then were adultery, but matters were hardly that simple. Only one of the parties could be guilty of it for the divorce to be allowed; if both strayed, a principle of reciprocity kicked in and the marriage had to stand since, in the eyes of the law, there was no innocent victim.
In the book, the wife has fallen in love with another man, but doesn’t want to be sued for divorce because he could lose his job if named in such a suit. The husband, being a gentleman, offers to fake an incident of adultery with a paid co-conspirator (think of The Gay Divorcee, filmed the same year with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers).
On the first try, he fails to convince the judge that adultery occurred, so he has to find another co-conspirator and try again. This time the divorce is granted, but during the waiting period for it to become final, someone rats out the wife and her boyfriend to the court. The matter is re-heard and the divorce decree is withdrawn.
As the book ends, the wife and her lover are preparing to live in sin, and the husband has resigned himself to a life of married bachelorhood, but the law has upheld the sanctity of marriage.
Which brings us to a Times article published earlier this week, reporting that thousands of Italians are going to Spain, England (what a difference 77 years makes) and France, but particularly Romania to get quick divorces.
An Italian couple, it turns out, can fly to Romania, establish residency in one day, file for divorce, and have a final decree in hand in less than six months, legally recognized by Italy and every other European nation.
To get an uncontested divorce in Italy takes five years, assuming everything goes well and there are no unanticipated consequences. If the divorce petition is contested, there is no telling how long it could take to get to a resolution, if, indeed, there ever is one. Like manufacturers seeking a lower-wage environment, discontented Italian spouses are taking advantage of globalization to pursue their interests as they see them.
With the legalization of gay marriage in New York there’s been an uptick of sanctimonious bilge about the sacredness of marriage and the dangers of allowing same-sex couples to buy in. Hardly anyone talks about the reality of marriage. Like war, it’s easy to rush into and difficult to get out of with your honor intact, and the institution itself is a hopelessly unrealistic relic of an earlier age. What Churchill said of democracy is also true of marriage: it’s the worst system there is, except for all the others. Viewed objectively, it’s a miracle that, in today’s world, it works for anyone.
By the way, in the spirit of disclosure, I’ve been happily married for 34 years. (If you want Linda’s side of the story, you’ll have to ask her.) Herbert, the author of Holy Deadlock, dedicated the book to “Mrs. A.P. Herbert, on the nineteenth anniversary of her wedding.”