When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
Shipboard romances seldom turn out well. However, few, if any, ended as publicly and as spectacularly as the enigmatic entanglement of Major William Charles Yelverton (later Viscount Avonmore) and Maria Theresa Longworth. It took six years, numerous courts in three different countries, and Lord knows how many impassioned newspaper stories to sort out their relationship, and even then the results remained unsatisfactorily inconclusive. The moral, if there is one, could be this: If you are a young, pretty, and romantic young woman, avoid moonlight at sea at all costs.
The story opened in 1852. One summer evening, Miss Longworth, an attractive 19-year-old orphan, took a steamboat from Boulogne to London. During this voyage, she made the acquaintance of the twenty-eight-year-old Yelverton. During the crossing, he was very attentive to her, (just how attentive he was would be a matter for later public debate,) and after landing the next day, he paid her a call.
|Major William Yelverton|
After this, they went their separate ways for more than three years. Longworth went to Italy, and Yelverton to his station in Malta. In the meantime, they kept up a correspondence—volumes and volumes of correspondence that would eventually become exhausting reading for lawyers scattered all over the British Isles. Their mode of addressing each other soon went from “My dear Miss Longworth,” and “Ever your sincere friend,” to ”Carissimo Carlo mio,” and “Cara Theresa mia,” finally culminating in the unforgettable (or unforgivable) “Tooi-tooi carissima.”
It took the Crimean War to reunite Carissimo and Tooi-tooi. They met again in Constantinople, the Major as a military man, Longworth as a nurse. The pair would later give conflicting stories about this reunion. The lady claimed he begged for her immediate hand, but she insisted the marriage be postponed until the end of the war. The Major, on the other hand, stated that he only called on the lady at her request, the meeting was brief, but “in consequences of the advances made by the pursuer, great familiarities ensued.”
After hostilities ceased, Longworth visited a friend in the Crimea. The Major was there as well, and, she stated, was known to everyone there as her fiancé. She said her beloved told her he was suffering financial problems and was dependent upon an uncle who did not wish him to marry. Because of this, he urged they be married secretly in the Greek church in Balaclava. This scheme did not appeal to her, (she was a devout Roman Catholic,) and she returned to Constantinople without any definite plans for their marriage. The Major denied her account, but their correspondence dating from after this interlude tends to support her version of events. Of course, by the time he gave his official testimony, he was quite anxious, for very good reasons which will soon be discussed, to paint himself not as an honorable suitor, but a highly dishonorable seducer.
By 1857, they had both returned to Britain. When the Major was stationed in Leith, Scotland, Longworh was visiting a friend in nearby Edinburgh. The couple saw much of one another and, again, they were recognized by all observers as affianced. Yelverton’s suggestion of a quasi-legal Greek marriage having been rejected, he tried a quasi-legal Scottish one.
“One day,” Longworth testified, “he took the prayer book from the table, and I went to his side, and he read the marriage ceremony, and said ‘That makes you my wife by the laws of Scotland.’ I opened the door of the room in which Miss MacFarlane was sitting, and said to her: ‘We’ve married each other.’”
Longworth appreciated this gesture of esteem, but she refused to grant her Major husbandly intimacy until a more conventional ceremony had taken place. When he persisted in trying to bed her, she fled Scotland, virtue intact.
Yelverton described the scene differently. There was no prayer book, no reading of the ceremony, no nothing. However, even though he lacked the legal status of a husband, he said one day he was granted all the privileges, “on the sofa in Mrs. Gamble’s sitting room.”
Whatever the truth may have been, this peripatetic pair next met in Ireland, where, she said, in August of 1857, they were joined in marriage by a Roman Catholic priest. Yelverton gave a grudging semi-corroboration of her story, muttering that they had indeed knelt before a priest, who read “a portion of a marriage service.”
Over the next year, they traveled together on-and-off, always as Mr. and Mrs. Yelverton. Theresa’s passport was under that name.
In the spring of 1858, Yelverton traveled to Edinburgh, leaving his lady behind in France. There, he found the material wealth he so desperately craved. Unfortunately, it came in the form of a young widow, Emily Forbes.
The Major was evidently one of those men with a knack for persuading ladies to act in ways contrary to their best interests. He soon persuaded this walking cash machine to marry him. He wrote to Theresa, urging her to emigrate to New Zealand, where he would soon join her—honest! Instead, she followed him to Edinburgh, only to discover a second Mrs. Yelverton—one who was already pregnant—and the fat was well and truly in the fire. The discarded Theresa filed suit to prove that she, and she alone, was the rightful Mrs. Yelverton.
The issue of the Major's complex love life first went to court in Dublin. Yelverton’s argument was that the Scottish marriage was a figure of the lovesick Miss Longworth’s imagination, and the Irish one didn’t count, as he was not a Catholic. He unblushingly asserted that from the very beginning of their relationship, he had only illicit sex, not honorable wedlock, on his mind. This self-destruction of his reputation was necessary to his case. In crime writer Edmund Lester Pearson's words, Yelverton "was in a frightful jam. He might admit that some time, in his pursuit of Theresa, he had been animated by the feelings of a true lover, an officer and a gentleman. If he did so, it would lead to the conclusion that his purposes were sort of half-way decent, and therefore that, perhaps, he really had ventured into matrimony. This would naturally lead him straight to jail, as the bigamous husband...Or else he had to paint himself as a scoundrelly seducer, into whose head never entered the tiniest bit of honorable intention. And then, his trouble would be to escape being dissected by the infuriated populace of Dublin."
The "jam" couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy.
Theresa made an excellent impression in court. She told her sad tale with an intelligence, dignity, and apparent candor which brought a much-needed touch of class to this sordid story. The blonde, demure-looking Miss Longworth/Mrs. Yelverton fit so perfectly the ideal image of the Victorian heroine that the public instantly made her their idol. Men felt a protective devotion to this cruelly forsaken lady, while women saw her as the personification of all the wrongs they themselves had suffered at the hands of men. Meanwhile, Yelverton, whose whole defense was based on making himself look like a complete stinker, succeeded admirably in that regard. If Theresa seemed like the classic heroine, her former love was the stereotypical villain of melodrama. At the close of Theresa's testimony, the "Freeman's Journal" wrote:
Mrs. Yelverton is abandoned. The legality of marriage is denied, and it is alleged that, though married by a priest, in as much as Mr. Yelverton is a Protestant at the time the marriage is a nullity. We have endeavoured to put the legal point raised in a brief compass. The plea in fact amounts to this: that any Protestant libertine may pretend to any young and beautiful Catholic woman that he has become a Catholic, marry her as a Catholic, and at the end of a month, or of a year, or of three, cast her off and proclaim that the confiding woman who, in the purity of her heart, and before God, became his wife, was in law and in fact his mistress, the victim of his brutal lust, and of the more brutal code which abets his villiany. In fact, the issue before the court in the present case is not one of pounds, shillings, and pence. The issue is whether the law is such as the Hon. Major Yelverton's counsel contends.
Every attempt to cast a slur on the fair fame of Mrs.Yelverton has failed. The counsel for the defendant subjected her character yesterday to a cross-examination of such a character that a crowded court groaned him again and again to indicate the indignation which the questions briefed to him had created. We hope it will be the last time that a member of the Bar will subject himself to such a rebuke that must be felt with double force when he remembers the firm and dignified, yet mild and ladylike tone in which the woman set aside the unworthy attempt to cast an imputation on her honour.
We cannot believe that any court will hold it to be legal for a man to affect to be a Catholic, entrap a Catholic lady into a marriage, and then with impunity turn on his victim and claim her as his concubine. If such be the law, the public virtue, the public conscience, the public will, which has the power of making and unmaking laws, must unmake this hideous code, trample upon it as an outrage against society, against morals and against religion, and must do so by the instrumentality of a jury.
As for Major Yelverton, the same publication snorted:
Major Yelverton's evidence was perfectly damnatory, and while it condemned the defendant out of his own mouth, it confirmed in the minutest details the particulars of the evidence of Mrs. Yelverton. What a triumph for the virtuous wife, what ignominy for the dishonourable husband, the whole evidence of the man of "gentle blood" excited the most intense disgust. Was it believed? We shall not, though we could, answer the question. His sole object from the moment he met Mrs. Yelverton on the Boulogne packet was her ruin. She was not of sufficient gentle blood for his wife, but she was quite good enough to be his concubine.After all the testimony had been heard, the jury, aflame with chivalrous indignation, blew the Major a raspberry. Both Longworth marriages, they ruled, were valid.
Yelverton then tried his luck with an Edinburgh judge, who ruled in his favor. There was an appeal, which ended with a two-to-one decision against him. Yelverton’s next move was the House of Lords, where he won a squeaker: A three-to-two decision decreeing that Emily Ashworth Forbes, and not Theresa Longworth, was the proud bride of this man. It is a matter of debate which lady truly came out the winner. It is also unresolved whether Theresa Longworth and her erstwhile Carissimo were ever really married, and if her role was of wholly innocent dupe or willing and deliberate paramour. Ellen Rosenman, a modern-day student of the case, summed things up nicely: “It seems incredible that the worldly Yelverton would have allowed himself to be maneuvered into an imprudent marriage but equally incredible that Longworth would risk so much by becoming Yelverton’s mistress.”
Unfortunately--or perhaps, now that I think of it, fortunately--we know nothing about Emily Forbes’ reaction to finding her new husband came with some very messy strings attached, or of their subsequent marital life. All that can be said is that after the Irish trial, the army declined to have anything more to do with Yelverton. He succeeded to his father’s title of Viscount Avonmore in 1870, and he died in Biarritz on April 1, 1883, a disgraced and obscure figure.
Theresa—who used, until the end of her days, the names of Mrs. Yelverton and Viscountess Avonmore—had a more interesting post-trial existence. She became a world traveler, lecturer (an unsuccessful one, alas,) and author. She published an edition of her famous correspondence with the Major, travelogues, and several romantic novels.
It is unclear whether her unconquerable restlessness was the happy product of an adventurous and independent spirit, or the tragic efforts to escape a blighted and lonely life. On September 13, 1881, she died in South Africa at the age of forty-eight. She had ten pounds to her name.