In the 1920s and 1930s, English law did not allow for divorce by mutual consent, but rather required proof of adultery, or violence by one party; misconduct by both parties could lead to the divorce being refused. Divorce was seen as a remedy for the innocent against the guilty. So this had the weird consequence, castigated in the book, that if one spouse had committed adultery, they could be divorced, but if both had, they couldn't – unless the court chose to exercise its discretion. That discretion was itself covered by peculiar rules of its own. To add a further hurdle, the law strictly prohibited "collusion" by the parties. This could extend to any sort of negotiation between them. An official—the King's Proctor—was charged with seeking out any evidence of the parties working together to secure a divorce.
Many couples of the time chose to petition on the grounds of adultery, even when no adultery had been committed. In this situation, a popular solution was what was known as "hotel evidence": the man and an uninvolved woman would travel to a seaside resort for a weekend, and go around publicly and ostentatiously as husband and wife. In the morning, they would take great care to be observed by the chambermaid in bed together when she brought in their breakfast. The pair would return home, and when the case came to court the maid would be called on to give evidence as a witness to this fictitious "adultery". After the trial, there would then be a six-month waiting period until the decree nisi granted at the trial was made absolute, and any misconduct by the "innocent" party in this time—or any evidence of collusion coming to light—could annul the divorce.
In effect, to secure an amicable divorce, one or both of the couple would have to commit perjury several times over—and potentially be liable for criminal penalties in so doing. Whilst the courts would often turn a blind eye to it, this was by no means guaranteed, and a system which virtually mandated perjury was felt by many to be scandalous.
Divorce law reform had long been one of Herbert's "small causes", for which he agitated in the pages of Punch. His first attempt to bring this particular cause to a broader audience was a play, The White Witch (1924), concerning a couple in a divorce suit who both protest that they had not committed adultery. The play was a failure, and closed after six weeks; Herbert felt that the "fatal" problem had been that "nobody made love" in the play. Arnold Bennett wrote that he was "very disappointed indeed" by it, and E. V. Lucas wrote that he loathed "adultery discussions in public. The theatre ... should be jollier than that".
Herbert had written three novels, with varying degrees of success. The Secret Battle (1919), a critically acclaimed war novel, sold poorly on its original publication but was republished in 1930, and went through five subsequent editions. The House by the River (1920) was a little-noted crime novel, which began to introduce elements of comedy into a tragic storyline,. The Water Gipsies (1930), a story about canal life, was a broad success, which went on to sell a quarter of a million copies and attract comparison to the works of Charles Dickens. By 1932, he was contemplating a fourth novel to capitalise on this last success; his editor at Punch, E. V. Knox, encouraged him to put aside his theatrical work to focus on writing it.