Sometimes, when writing, you need to stop and research something so you hop onto Wikipedia for a second and three hours later you are reading about The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act 1907. I no longer remember what exact sequence of articles led me here—I think I was looking up suitable female authors for Florence of The Lady of the Bog to emulate, and one of the authors I discovered was the byproduct of a marriage between a widower and the sister of his late wife, or wrote a novel warning of the grave consequences of such an incestuous alliance.
Victorians were apparently very concerned about whether or not it was appropriate for a man to marry the sister of his dead wife. So very concerned that it frequently came up in political debate.
The source of the controversy seemed to be interpretation of canonical law reflected in the Anglican Church’s Table of Kindred and Affinity, which put relationships by marriage on the same level as blood relationships. Marrying your dead wife’s sister, was therefore equivalent to marrying your sister.
How was this even a thing? Why did so many men want to marry their sister-in-laws? My guess is the fact that so many women died in childbirth, leaving their husband’s with young children to care for. Many of these widowers relied on their sisters or sisters in law to raise the motherless children.
I had assumed that Victorians would have been all over widowers hooking up with the sister of the dead wife—the families were already linked, all parties involved knew each other, everything kept in the family—so I think that’s why this struck me as so interesting. The 1835 prohibition against marrying your deceased wife’s sister was not enough to stop widowers getting it on with their sisters in law, however. Instead, they turned to ‘silence, secrecy and Scotland’ or, for those who could afford it, getting married abroad.
Fortunately for all these desperate widowers, in 1907, the prohibition was revoked.
Wait, what? Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act?