Adulterous agency and the fragile feminine reputation in the colonial divorce court

Marian Lorrison*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In 1879, Sydney was kept in thrall by the scandalous divorce trial of Jane Dibbs, whose wealthy husband, John, accused her of adultery. This article argues that by attending to men as the chief historical actors, historical research has erroneously depicted women as passive subjects and denied that they too are energetic social actors. Using legal records and press reportage, it suggests that the extramarital sexual liaison provided women with a potential context in which to exercise agency, despite their structural disempowerment. By exploring Jane Dibbs’s efforts to lead an autonomous existence away from her husband’s despotic control, the paper confirms that one can be both agent and subjugated subject, a suggestion strengthened by adopting the phenomenological notion of embodiment. This concept allows us to recognise how women could use their bodies to transgress gender norms and resist patriarchal authority. In tracing the dire consequences of Jane Dibbs’s sustained resistance, however, it is evident that the painstakingly constructed feminine persona was no match for masculine might. Unable to earn a living wage, deprived of her children, and facing social exclusion, the elite woman undergoing divorce proceedings suffered in a particularly destructive way.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)349-364
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Australian Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • adultery
  • agency
  • colonial divorce
  • female sexuality
  • feminine reputation
  • gender relations


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