Prior to her marriage in 1934 to Mohamed Hussein, an Egyptian railway official 10 years her senior, 18-year-old Estella Blitz signed a very curious document.
‘I Estella agree to marry Mohamed on the following conditions: (1) I know that he is an old-fashioned Egyptian and I know all about Egyptian habits and character and I promise to follow all these habits and character without any exceptions; (2) I promise not to go out anywhere without my husband; (3) I will never have any men or boy friends of me nor ask any man or boy to visit me at home nor see any man or boy outside or have any appointments; (4) I promise not to write to anybody friend of mine in Egypt or anywhere else abroad, man, boy, girl or lady; (5) I promise not to dance with any man or boy at home or at any other home or at any dancing hall in any feast or in any other circumstance; (6) I know well that Mohamed is not rich at all and he can’t promise anything except just keeping me comfortably; (7) I confess that I write these conditions with my own wish and without any obligation from any side, and that I am conscious and responsible and that if I break any of these conditions I have to separate, and have no right to claim any penny from Mohamed at any court, whether Egyptian or English’.
Was this an early example of a sensible pre-nuptial contract or the work of an overbearing fiancé who nowadays would lend himself to prosecution? Without doubt the latter.
In 1938 Estella brought an action for nullity claiming she had agreed to the marriage because Hussein had threatened to kill her if she had not gone ahead. ‘He put his hands round my throat and tried to strangle me,’ she said. He had apparently become besotted with her the first time he saw her at a party and proposed within the week.
He returned to Egypt after the wedding and by 1938 she had not heard from him for a year. The court held that as an 18-year-old she had been put under duress by Hussein’s threats.
There is a postscript. In 1942, at the height of the London Blitz, Estella changed her name to Berkeley.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor