“For my part I don’t see why men who have got wives and don’t want ’em, shouldn’t get rid of ’em as these gipsy fellows do their old horses,” said the man in the tent. “Why shouldn’t they put ’em up and sell ’em by auction to men who are in need of such articles?”
This speech, from the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge leads on to literature’s most famous wife sale: Michael Henchard sells his wife Susan and their daughter to a sailor for five guineas.
Whether contracted by church service or by handfasting [a ritual that signifies the marriage between two people with the binding of the hands of the bride and groom], marriage was for life. Divorce required an Act of Parliament, so was unobtainable for all but a tiny, wealthy minority, and bigamy had been a capital offence since 1604.
So how might an unhappy couple be free of each other? According to historians E P Thompson and Lawrence Stone, wife-selling was recognised as the commoner’s only means of escape from marital misery. Wife sales were not recognised in law, but they were widely accepted within the community of ordinary people.
Curiously, the most noteworthy example in west Berkshire involved an aristocrat, Henry Brydges (1708-71), son of the Duke of Chandos, around 1740. There are no surviving primary sources, but the story appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1832. It surfaced again in 1870 (in Notes & Queries), with slightly different details, claiming to be based on a first-hand witness account. More than 150 years after the event it surfaced again from the pen of Walter Money, the Newbury historian, in his Popular History of Newbury, 1905.
The Gentleman’s Magazine identifies the vendor as an ostler who is beating his wife, and quotes her sale price as half-a-crown, but it does not name the sale location; in Notes & Queries the wife is named as Ann Wells, a chambermaid at the Pelican Inn, Speenhamland, to which she is led for sale, and where Brydges is smitten by her beauty and makes his bid. Neither of these accounts dates the event, and there is uncertainty as to whether or not Brydges was himself a widower at the time. Walter Money asserts that the event took place in Marlborough rather than Newbury, where Brydges had stopped en route from Bath, although he names the abused wife as Ann Jefferies née Wells of Newbury. He claims both she and Brydges were married at the time, but that after being freed by the deaths of their spouses, they married in December 1744.
Earlier in that same year Brydges’ father had died, so the dukedom of Chandos passed to his son. Thus, on marriage, the former chambermaid instantly became the Duchess of Chandos and, says Money, “filled her position to admiration”.
One possibly relevant fact which seems to have been overlooked by all accounts is that the first Duke of Chandos owned Shaw House, the Tudor mansion on the north-eastern edge of Newbury, and that from 1727 to 1744 Henry Brydges held this house in tenancy from his father. The house is an easy walk from the Pelican Inn which, furthermore, belonged to the Shaw House estate.
The story was further embroidered in several later versions but, sadly, there seems to be no authenticated first-hand account against which to validate the ever-burgeoning detail. This is typical of reports of wife sales: they tend to consist of secondary middle-class commentaries on the distant shenanigans of the “lower orders”, comical or disgraceful according to perspective.
“There is something going on here, however, is there not?”
“Ay. ’Tis Fair Day. Though what you hear now is little more than the clatter and scurry of getting away the money o’ children and fools…”
Wife sales (whether or not they were auctions) were almost always conducted in some kind of public forum, witnesses being the element that conferred validity on the transaction. In that sense it was the logical counterpoint to the self- marriage of handfasting: self-divorce. Susan Henchard was sold at a fair, but markets and inns could also provide the required environment. The future Duchess of Chandos was sold in the yard of one of the busiest coaching inns on the Bath Road.
The conversation took a high turn, as it often does on such occasions. The ruin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of many a promising youth’s high aims and hopes and the extinction of his energies by an early imprudent marriage, was the theme.
Hardy makes Michael Henchard’s decision sound impulsive (after a considerable amount of alcohol), although his wife had heard such talk before. In the Gentleman’s Magazine it is implied that Henry Brydges offered to buy the ostler’s wife to rescue her from a beating. Violence is not reported in Notes and Queries: rather, a premeditated sale is implied by the husband leading his wife to the yard with a halter around her neck.
The halter is a persistent feature of reported wife sales, presumably emphasising that the wife is no more than livestock owned by her husband and may be disposed of as such. Indeed, Smithfield meat market was a favoured location for wife- sales in London. Susan Henchard undergoes an insulting assessment of her physical condition by idle male bystanders. There is a strong element of comedic theatre involved, in which men found it gratifying to watch female degradation.
“’Tis quite on the understanding that the young woman is willing,” said the sailor blandly. “I wouldn’t hurt her feelings for the world.”
To what extent were wife sales consensual? Susan Henchard clearly is not consenting in the early stages of her auction, but the fact that her husband so publicly wants rid of her seems to sway her from objection to indifference. Ann Wells apparently displayed “patient acquiescence”.
Male historians have taken a more sanguine view. E P Thompson examined records of 123 cases in England between 1760 and 1880 and concluded that the consent of the wife was probably necessary for the process to go through. Wikipedia blithely defines wife sale as “a way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by mutual agreement”, and there is no doubt that many of these transactions were sought equally by both parties. However, the alternative to being sold would likely be abandonment and destitution, so women would have had little choice but to comply, particularly if they had children to support. The child in Casterbridge appears to be little more than incidental baggage at the time of the auction, although she becomes more significant later in the story. Ann Wells is later recorded as having a daughter, Augusta Ann, but it is by no means clear which marriage produced this child.
“I haven’t more than fifteen shillings in the world, and yet I am a good experienced hand in my line. I’d challenge England to beat me in the fodder business; and if I were a free man again I’d be worth a thousand pound before I’d done o’t.”
Michael Henchard blames his wife for having prevented him from making more success of his life. Ann Wells’ husband’s motives are unstated. However, in many other cases adultery was the key, and indeed there are instances of cuckolded husbands selling wives to their lovers, with approval all round.
Until the 1880s, under the law of coverture, a husband owned all his wife’s property and earnings, but he was also liable for her debts. Whilst the courts did not recognise that selling her would release him from this, the community at large did. Conversely, a sold wife might become free of her husband’s claim on her possessions or earnings.
Amongst humbler people the buyer would normally be considered the de facto new husband, although this would never be upheld by the courts. The second Duke of Chandos had an elevated social position to maintain, and the nineteenth-century accounts emphasise that he did not marry Ann Wells until 1744, when they were both free so to do. His father’s death earlier that year may also have been significant: such a marriage would have been unlikely to have had aristocratic parental approval.
Research has traced around 400 wife-sales in English records between 1750, when it was considered to be on the increase, and 1850. (Thompson also traced five or six cases of the reverse – husband selling – all of which were nineteenth century).
But in the nineteenth century attitudes were changing. The parallel of wife sales with slavery was by now uncomfortable, and the courts began to crack down. Joseph Toomer, mayor of Newbury in 1814, noted disapprovingly in his diary reports of a wife sold for a guinea at the Cooper’s Arms. Had it not been for the wife’s failure to appear in court, the husband might well have been jailed by the mayor as magistrate.
Nonetheless a legal exit from unhappy marriage was urgently needed, not only for the common people amongst whom wife sale had been practised, but for the growing middle classes who wanted to stay on the right side of the law. Legal divorce became available in 1857.
All italicised quotes are from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, originally published 1886, currently available as eBook on: https:// www.gutenberg.org/files/143/143-h/143-h.htm.
- The Contrast, by the Author of “Yes and no”, Gentleman’s Magazine, 102: 347, April 1832
- Notes & Queries 1870 4th series, vol 6, p179
- E P Thompson. Customs in Common (New Press, 1993)
- Lawrence Stone. Road to Divorce 1530-1987 (OUP)
- Rachel Vaessen. Humour, halters and humiliation: wife-sale as theatre and self- divorce (thesis, Simon Fraser University) http://summit.sfu.ca/item/6318