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How to Dispose of a Troublesome Wife

In A Minor Deception, I’ve portrayed Haydn’s wife, Maria Anna, as a shrew. It’s true, of course, that they didn’t get along very well. Partly, this was because Maria Anna had absolutely no interest in music.  You can imagine what this must have meant to a man like Haydn.

There were other reasons, too. But what could Haydn do? As a Catholic,  he was tied to her for the rest of their earthly lives.

In Protestant Germany to the north, matters were rather different. Men could, and sometimes did, divorce their wives. When Frederick the Great ascended the Prussian throne in 1740, he was widely expected to divorce his wife, a woman he had married only to appease his abusive father.

It came as a shock to his friends when Frederick did no such thing.  He gave his wife a palace of her own, and had nothing more to do with her. And that, of course, was that.

Other men dealt a little more harshly with their wives. In Weimar, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, not content with divorcing his wife Charlotte, also locked her up in one of his castles.

But the story I like the most comes from France.  A composer by the name of Louis Marchand approached the problem of his recalcitrant spouse in a rather unique manner.

Marchand, if he is remembered at all, is best known for avoiding an encounter with Johann Sebastian Bach in Dresden. Both men were known for their organ playing, and when Bach visited Dresden at the same time that Marchand was in the city, it seemed only natural to organize a contest of sorts between the two men.

Now, Marchand had until quite recently been court organist and harpsichordist at Versailles. His expulsion from the court, and subsequent removal to Dresden had to do with his wife.

He had divorced her apparently for neglect. Klaus Eidam, who recounts the story in his True Life of Bach, doesn’t specify in what regard she neglected Marchand. Suffice it to say, the composer felt neglected.

But that was not the end of the matter. Marchand’s wife, like many a modern-day divorced woman, sued for maintenance. The king determined she had just cause, and awarded her half of Marchand’s salary.

Eighteenth-century men were no more well disposed toward maintaining ex-wives than their twenty-first century counterparts. And Marchand’s fury at this state of affairs can be readily imagined.

Had Marchand been alive today, he might have disposed of his wife in the violent fashion that has provided so many of us mystery writers with fodder for our fiction.

But Marchand was an eighteenth-century individual, so he did something a little more clever. He didn’t win the argument, but he made a rather telling point.

At the next concert, Marchand stopped playing halfway through. Why should he play the entire concert when he was only receiving half his salary? Thanks to the King, the other half was being paid to his former wife. Let her, then, play the rest of the concert.

For this impudent behavior, he was expelled from the court. Who could have expected otherwise? Perhaps, Marchand himself had expected no less. If he were dismissed, he would receive no salary. And half of nothing was. . . well, exactly nothing.

Even if he hadn’t thought things through in quite such a Machiavellian fashion, it was a good solution. It was not only rather witty, it forces us to view the question of alimony in a new light. Does the mere fact of marriage entitle a woman to half her former husband’s earnings? Women today have considerably more opportunities than Marchand’s wife did. We are not barred from entering the workforce, or indeed remaining in it after marriage or after childbirth.

An argument might be made for some type of support when there are children involved. But where there are no children, should women—or men, for that matter—be entitled to any type of support. Is alimony an outdated concept, at best; another motive for murder, at worst?

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Bach, divorce, Eighteenth Century, Haydn's wife, Marchand, Maria Anna, troublesome wives

  1. It is not a simple matter of yes and no. It all depends on the length of the marriage and the contributions each has made to the joint enterprise, either by financial or other support. What about the spouse who supports the other while they do a post-grad degree or the one who gives up their own career so that the other can climb the ladder through frequent moves? Alimony is not only paid by men to women but also by women to men, depending on who is the higher earner, who is the primary carer, etc. etc. However, a short marriage with no children should not result in a meal ticket for life for either sex.

  2. Nupur says:

    Thanks for visiting, Catherine. No, it’s not a simple question, is it?

  3. The issue of alimony often neglects the income of the two parties. I have a friend who earns far less–and it isn’t a large income in the first place–than his ex, yet he must pay half of his salary to her. Their kids are grown and on their own, so the ex doesn’t need child support. The man is barely scraping by on the funds he has left over after payment. Is that fair? In modern times, does the woman always need alimony, or is it being used as a way to “punish” the man? It’s food for thought. I love the story of the musician who stopped playing halfway through the concert. That showed them!

    1. Nupur says:

      Your friend’s situation does seem very unfair, Sally. Here in California, we have a no-fault system, which means that the spouse responsible for the marriage breaking up could stand to benefit! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      1. Hi Nupur. We’re in California, but I don’t know the details of the man’s situation. There’s probably more issues that play into this.

        1. Nupur says:

          There might well be, Sally. We have a friend who started the process in 2013, and his divorce still isn’t finalized! Apparently his current income will determine the level of alimony his ex will get. Whether he can appeal the amount later should his income go down, I don’t know.

  4. LAGraham says:

    In Texas there is no alimony; I can tell you this from experience. That said, in most divorce settlements in Massachusetts where I now live alimony is limited to 20 years or until the recipient remarries. These days people are trying to get around that by co-habitating, so that’s being considered as well as a reason for halting alimony; it’s being written into some divorce settlements.

    1. Nupur says:

      Yes, you can do that in California, too–co-habit, that is to say, so you continue to receive alimony payments. Very interesting to hear Texas has no alimony at all. Thanks for stopping by, and posting a comment.

      1. LAGraham says:

        Of course my TX divorce was in 1964, but I haven’t heard anything about that law being changed since the.

        1. Nupur says:

          According to a quick Google search, it’s twenty percent of the paying spouse’s monthly income. The monthly amount can’t, however, exceed $5000, and support can’t last longer than five years. Eminently fair, I think. It obviously takes some time to get back on your feet. But there’s no reason for support to last an entire lifetime!

  5. A fascinating post, Nupur. I know several divorced couples and none has the same arrangement about alimony. One woman, with grown children, is guaranteed alimony for the rest of her life, and social security is factored into it. Another woman has two school age children and her husband has lied repeatedly to the courts and the IRS (and gotten away with it), so she is left with no alimony and with paying his back taxes while he charges forward with a new job, good salary, and a new house. Not fair at all. Divorce settlements need to be managed in a fairer manner.

    1. Nupur says:

      They absolutely do, Susan! As with everything else, it seems to boil down to who has the better lawyer. But really courts and judges need to conduct a more thorough investigation of the circumstances before making any decision in these cases.

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