How an English Orphan Girl Became a Viscountess and Went to California

Maria T[h]eresa LongworthNovelist Maria T[h]eresa Longworth’s own life story is the stuff of which Victorian novels are made. The orphaned daughter of a Manchester silk merchant, she was a woman of slender means.

In 1852, when returning home from a visit to her sister in France, she met Captain William Charles Yelverton of the Royal Artillery. Their ship was overbooked, so Teresa and the captain spent the night sitting in deck chairs, wrapped in his plaid blanket. When they disembarked in London, she gave him her address and he called upon her the next day, but that was the end of their encounter for a time. A little later, Theresa wrote to Yelverton, then stationed in Malta, and this led to steady correspondence between the pair, which gradually became affectionate.

Then Yelverton was sent to the Crimean war and, as luck would have it, Teresa went too, as a nurse, a Sister of Charity working in the French hospitals. (She was a Roman Catholic who had been educated in a French convent.) In 1855 or 1856, Yelverton chanced to visit the hospital where Teresa was working, renewing their acquaintance. According to Teresa, he proposed marriage, but she declined because she could not leave her nursing post until the war was over. They met up again in the tent of a general, where they were accepted as lovers, and when Teresa left the Crimea, Yelverton, now a major, went with her. Later, Teresa said that he wanted to marry her in the Greek Church, but she was insistent upon a Roman Catholic marriage.

When they landed back in England in 1857, she went to live with a friend in Edinburgh. Yelverton visited her there, and by his own admission, “triumphed over her virtue,” and married her in the Scotch manner by reading the marriage ceremony to her and acknowledging her as his wife before a witness. But Teresa still wanted a proper marriage. Yelverton finally agreed, and they went to Waterford, Ireland, where they were married by a Father Mooney for the sum of five pounds.

After the wedding they traveled in England, Scotland, and France. When in Bordeaux, Theresa fell ill, and also was pregnant (she lost the baby). The major left her there. When she was well, she wrote to him, imploring him to make their marriage public. He said that this would ruin him, and told her to find some rich man to marry and go to New Zealand. This was the last she heard from him.

As so often happened to single Victorian women, she had nowhere to go but to friends, so she went to one in Scotland. Imagine her surprise when she heard the news of her husband’s marriage to the Widow Forbes, a woman of large fortune from Edinburgh!

She sued him for alimony at once, and he paid her some money uncontested. But then, in 1861, Teresa went further. She got her landlord to sue Yelverton in the Court of Common Please in Dublin for the amount her board while she had stayed in his house. This was an effort to get a public admission that she was Yelverton’s wife, and that he should pay her debts. But Yelverton denied that he had married her, and thus began a world-famous trial, Thelwall vs. Yelverston. The trial transcript was published in “Harper’s Weekly,” and in the papers of the entire English-speaking world. The case was such a cause celebre that two plays were written about it: “A Wife and Not a Wife” by Cyrus Redding, and “Gentle Blood, or The Secret Marriage” by James Roderick O’Flanagan.

Teresa was the chief witness in the trial that lasted three days. She was extremely composed and made a very favorable impression. Yelverton, on the other hand, was forced to admit that he was a cad who had behaved dishonorably throughout. Father Mooney testified that the marriage he had performed was not really valid. Although the validity of both the Scottish marriage and the Roman Catholic one were affirmed and the case ended in her favor, Major Yelverton did not give up the fight, and in 1867 he persuaded the House of Lords to decide against the marriage.

By this time, Teresa had spent most of her money in litigation, and so she decided to travel and earn money by writing. She adopted the name Therese Yelverton, Viscountess Avonmore, to which she had no claim, but which added to her celebrity and must have given her some satisfaction to flaunt the name of the man who so much did not want her to have it.

In 1870 Teresa traveled to the Yosemite Valley, where a geological survey was just then underway. There she met the Hutchings family, whose daughter Florence (1864-1881) was the first white child born there, as well as the naturalist John Muir. Hutchings wrote many books about Yosemite and had a sawmill that Muir operated for a time. There, Teresa wrote a novel called “The Daughters of Ahwahnee” whose characters were quite obviously the Hutchings and Muir, who became Kenmuir in the book. The title was later changed by the publishers, Hurd and Houghton, to Zanita, a Tale of the Yo-Semite, published in an edition of 2,000 copies in 1872, and rather scarce today. Zanita was Florence (Floy) Hutchings, Cozy her sister Cosa, and the parents are Oswald and Placida Naunton. Teresa herself appears in the book as Mrs. Brown. According to Muir’s extant letters, the book has a fairly good description of him, as well as accurate accounts of the theories of Muir and others regarding the geological formation of the Yosemite Valley. Interestingly enough, in the novel, Zanita dies by falling (or being pushed?) from a mountain, and in real life, years after publication of the book, Florence died in a fall while guiding some tourists a month after her seventeenth birthday.

Teresa traveled the world writing articles, including one on Buddha’s tooth, in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, November 1873, which can be read on-line:

A good account of Muir in the Yosemite Valley, Teresa, and the Hutchings can be found in The Life and Letters of John Muir by William Frederic Bade, Chapter IX, at The Sierra Club site:

Postscript: In doing a Google search for Yo-Semite, I came to a link called “Jewish Humor-Semite.” Following this link, I was led to the Encyclopaedia Britannica “Semite” page, and there was Zanita: Tale of the Yo-Semite with an invitation to “Buy This Book.” Unable to resist seeing who might be linking Zanita to Jewish Humor, I clicked that button and was taken to Barnes and Noble, where a reprint is being offered.

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