01 November 2011

Wife-selling customs in England

In England between the late eighteenth all the way on through the mid-nineteenth century there occurred a fascinating but little spoken of custom called wife-selling. There is an account of this practice in The Mayor of Casterbridge, but otherwise is not often accounted for, perhaps because it was not terribly commonplace.

Wife-selling was an illegal practice but one many people felt was their only alternative to divorce. Until the Marriage Act of 1857 was passed, it would take an official Act of Parliament to pass a divorce, along with a prohibitive price tag to the tune of around $20,000 in today’s terms. Unhappily married partners of low means eventually came up with an alternative way to separate through the process of a public sale.

In order to understand a wife-sale more in-depth, we need to keep in mind the husband was not only considered the protector and provider of his wife, but her owner. Therefore he was seen as having the right to sell her as he would any possession. The law did not support wife-selling, but in other senses it very much defined the wife as the husband’s possession. Through marriage all that was hers became his.

For an unhappily married couple, the wife-sale provided a way out of the dilemma. It was certainly more honorable than the husband deserting the woman, as many did and were sometimes prosecuted for. The husband could pass responsibility onto another willing party and the woman could come out of the deal with a hopefully more suitable partner and something of an untarnished name in the eyes of the community, which would have been an integral part of their lives. It is recorded that sometimes the man she was sold to was already her lover, or at least someone she and her husband had prearranged. But this wasn’t always the case.

 Michael Henchard, on the way to a fair to sell his wife and child,
From The Mayor of Casterbridge

Generally the custom took place in rural areas in the public marketplace to ensure as many witnesses as possible. The husband would register his wife as a good of sale and a rope was placed loosely around her neck, arm, or waist (a supposedly humorous nod to the way beasts were led to sale). She would be led up to an auction block or platform to be bid on by the jeering crowd. The crowds loved this sort of sport.

As mentioned above, generally someone was prearranged to win the bidding. But not always; sometimes the auction was truly won by the highest bidder!  Imagine you were a lonely or widowed farmer who could really use a woman’s helping hand—particularly if you had children to raise. What an opportunity!

After the winner was chosen, the auctioneer closed the sale and money or goods were exchanged along with the toll ticket that was used to register the woman for sale and the halter.  The winner would take the woman home to live with him, but before then a trip to the tavern might be in order to celebrate the transaction. Drinks were on tab of the former husband. How the woman felt at the other end of this is anyone’s guess.

A quieter way to go about a sale was through an ad in the newspaper, perhaps especially if one’s wife did not consent? Still, the law was strict in its stance that the new couple was living in adultery, both a moral and a legal transgression, and that any children born under the new union would be legally illegitimate. Prosecution for wife-selling is on the records, but overall a blind eye was turned.

To be fair, it is generally agreed upon that if the woman appeared to be in distress, the sale would be halted, but there is no way to be sure every woman consented. The practice largely petered off by mid-nineteenth century, and was very seldom recorded at all by century’s end.

So you see wife-selling was not only a solution to an unhappy marriage, it was also a playful jab at convention. However, what if the wife did not consent? And what if she was pregnant? This is something I explore in my novel, Roeing Oaks

Kristina Emmons lives in greater Seattle, WA with her husband and two children. She hopes to convey a sense of community and justice through her writing.