Divorce Law Reform (9 december 1913)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Divorce Law Reform is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Morning Post on 9 december 1913.

Divorce Law Reform

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Reply

Sir, — I thought that I had made it sufficiently plain in my previous answer to Lord Hugh Cecil that it was the general recommendation of the Majority Report of the recent Commission upon the Divorce Laws which I supported. Lord Hugh talks as if some wild, strange thing were proposed, subversive of all the traditions of Christianity. Who would imagine, to read his article, that the changes suggested are already in force in varying degrees in every Protestant country in Europe! I can assure him that nothing revolutionary is involved in our discussion — nothing which has not been tested and approved by communities which are quite as religious and as moral as ourselves.

Lord Hugh blames me for not stating a number of things which it would take a good-sized volume to state — to propose a substitute for the theological foundations of the Christian Church, to elaborate a new moral system, and so forth. I may have my own views upon such matters, but it would be a mere personal intrusion to express them upon such an occasion. I will content myself by saying that if any so-called moral law compels the continued union of a confirmed lunatic with a sane person, or of a helpless woman with a cruel and brutal man, then it becomes an accursed thing though you bolster it with a thousand texts. A sound morality must rest not upon the varying quick-sands of theology, but upon the solid welfare of humanity.

Lord Hugh presses me as to what I would define as chastity and what I would not — what is marriage and what is fornication. I can only answer by taking an illustrative example. A union blessed by the Church, but unaccompanied by love, worldly, heartless, and interested in its essential nature, appears to me as fornication. A union, be it with a deceased wife's sister or with one who has been divorced, or any other in which the Church's ruling differs from that of the British law, is a true marriage so long as it is blessed by an unselfish love. I am as opposed to licence as Lord Hugh can be, but I am also opposed to the continuation of a vast amount of misery, which both commonsense and the experience of other countries have shown to be unnecessary.

What Lord Hugh means when he says that our law of marriage does not coerce anyone I cannot imagine. It seems to me to be on a par with the old dictum of the Church, which delivered a heretic into the civil power with the injunction that there should be no bloodshed, well knowing that he would be burned alive. The whole system rests ultimately upon coercion. Suppose that a man who has been deserted by his wife goes through the form of marriage with a second woman. Would not a policeman appear with a warrant for bigamy, and would not that warrant have the support of the whole forces of the Crown? How can it be said, then, that there is no coercion in our marriage laws?

Lord Hugh in the final passage of his article says: "I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will find that the vast majority of the English people are indisposed to depart from the Christian standard." It is one of the curiosities of the theological mind that it can never help begging the question at issue. He says it is the Christian standard. But every Protestant nation in Europe denies this, and has already departed from it in its legislation. A German or Swiss divine would by no means assent to the proposition that such amendments of the law as are recommended by the Majority of the Divorce Commission represent an apostasy from Christianity. Even in Lord Hugh's own Church there is a party which would disagree. In the independent Christian Churches he would find this disagreement widespread, if not unanimous. It is therefore a begging of the question (arguing it merely from the Christian point of view) to say that rigidity in our marriage laws is part of some unalterable standard. As to the views of the vast majority of the English people, I have no doubt myself that they will be on the side of reform, but that can only be shown when an actual Bill is laid before Parliament.

I seem to have done Lord Hugh's argument some injustice when I inferred that he was of the school which opposed the use of chloroform when a text appeared to condemn it. Even now it seems to me to be a fair parallel if we substitute mental for physical pain. But suppose that we grant that the married person having made a contract which is violated by the other partner to it still feels himself or herself to be spiritually bound to observe it at any cost of agony to themselves, what about the children? The wail of the helpless child, who is brought up in an atmosphere of drunkenness, cruelty, and brutality, which the law enforces as its unchangeable environment, is the most powerful voice which can be raised against our present dispensation. Is this vicarious suffering part also of the inviolate Christian standard? Or will healthy commonsense and equity override so senseless a superstition and insist that the crying needs of living people shall take precedence over ancient precepts, many of which we have already recognised as bearing no relevancy to the conditions of modern life.

Yours &c.,

Crowborough, Sussex, Dec. 8.

P.S. — I find that I owe the eminent Scottish Judge, Lord Guthrie, an apology for having confused his biography in my previous article with that of his famous father.