Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907
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The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907 (7 Edw.7 c.47) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, allowing a man to marry his dead wife's sister, which had previously been forbidden. This prohibition had derived from a doctrine of canon law whereby those who were connected by marriage were regarded as being related to each other in a way which made marriage between them improper.
The doctrine that such marriages were illicit was reflected in the Table of kindred and affinity in the Anglican (Church of England) Book of Common Prayer. Prohibition of marriage between certain degrees of kindred outlawed what is known as incest; prohibition between degrees of relationship by marriage (affinity) as opposed to blood (consanguinity) seems to have reflected an analogous taboo. At least one novel, Felicia Skene's The Inheritance of Evil; Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife's Sister (1849) addressed the topic in polemic fictional form.
Under ecclesiastical law, a marriage within the prohibited degrees was not absolutely void but it was voidable at the suit of any interested party. Matthew Boulton married his deceased wife's sister in 1760. He advised silence, secrecy and Scotland, although they married in London; the marriage was opposed by her brother. Similarly Charles Austen, the younger brother of Jane Austen, married his deceased wife's sister in 1820 and remained married to her until he died in 1852.
1835 Marriage act
The Marriage Act 1835, however, hardened the law into an absolute prohibition (whilst, however, authorising any such marriages which had already taken place), so that such marriages could no longer take place in the United Kingdom and colonies at all (in Scotland they were prohibited by a Scottish Marriage Act of 1567). Such marriages from that date had to take place abroad: see, for example, William Holman Hunt and John Collier, both painters, who married the sisters of their deceased wives in Switzerland and in Norway respectively. However, this was only possible for those who could afford it.
In 1842 a Marriage to a Deceased Wife's Sister Bill was introduced and defeated by strong opposition. "Although seemingly a minor skirmish, [it] had far-ranging implications and was fought on the political scene almost annually for most of the Victorian period". Peter Ferriday observed in his biography of Edmund Beckett, 1st Baron Grimthorpe: "Was there a single eminent Victorian who did not at some time or other announce his views on the 'deceased wife's sister'? She was the teething ring of all Victorian controversialists...".
The desire of widowed men to marry the sister of their deceased wife became the subject of particular agitation from the 1860s onwards and strong feelings were roused on both sides. However, it was to be nearly 50 years before the campaign for a change in the law was successful, despite the introduction of draft legislation in Parliament on many occasions. The lengthy nature of the campaign was referred to in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Iolanthe, in which the Queen of the Fairies sings "He shall prick that annual blister, marriage with deceased wife's sister".
Mrs Dinah Maria Craik wrote a book entitled Hannah, published in 1871, which tells the story of a man who, after the loss of his wife, falls in love with her sister when he calls on her to care for his baby son. Mrs Craik had acted as chaperone to Edith Waugh when she travelled to Switzerland to marry the painter Holman Hunt after the death of his first wife, her sister Fanny.
1907 act and subsequent legislation
The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907 removed the prohibition (although it allowed individual clergy, if they chose, to refuse to conduct marriages which would previously have been prohibited). The Act did exactly what it said and no more; so, for example, it was not until 1921 that the Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act 1921 was passed. The Marriage (Prohibited Degrees) Relationship Act 1931 extended the operation of the 1907 Act to allow the marriages of nieces and nephews by marriage as well.
The Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act (Northern Ireland) 1924 was passed to remove doubts as to the application of the Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act, 1921, to Northern Ireland.
- Diane M. Chambers (1996), "Triangular Desire and the Sororal Bond: The "Deceased Wife's Sister Bill."", Mosaic (Winnipeg) 29
- Ferriday, Peter (1957), Lord Grimthorpe, 1816–1905, London: John Murray Ltd., p. 9, OCLC 250668435
- The text of the 1907 Act may be read here.
- 'As the Angels Which Are in Heaven': Remarriage as Bigamy in David Copperfield and Middlemarch