A Wife is Worth Every Penny

A Wife is Worth Every Penny

Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson. England. Photo from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wife_selling_(English_custom)

Shortcut to Divorce

Did you know that Englishmen used to auction off their wives? Sold them to the highest bidder. Sold as is, shortcomings and sometimes children included. Newspapers printed accounts about 300 cases of wife-selling but many had gone unreported.

The tradition never got enshrined in law. However, the authorities turned a blind eye to it and the public took it in stride. At the time, there were no women in Parliament or women lawyers. A woman had no right to her earnings or her property or to enter into contracts. Neither did she have the right to hire an attorney, to attend her trial, to testify in court, make a will, or sue her husband.

Moreover, the law only recognized one parent – the father. A wife had no choice but to tolerate her husband’s adultery. A husband could get a divorce and let his mistress bring up his children.

Considering that only an Act of Parliament, plus insurmountable costs and the official blessing of the church, could dissolve a marriage, an auction became the only way out of an unhappy union.

The custom began with the introduction of the marriage law in 1753. Prior to it, a couple simply lived together, the man completely controlling the woman. The peak of these transactions fell on the mid-1800s. They petered out with the adoption of the divorce law in 1857. Still, one occurred in 1913, practically yesterday in historical terms. It yielded the sum of one pound to the relieved husband.

How does one reconcile the image of the tea-loving, well-mannered, stiff-upper-lipped founders of Common Law with wife-selling?

What the Wife-Selling Market Would Bear

If you assume that the auctioned wives felt humiliated or resentful you’re mistaken. The husband and wife often made the decision amiably. A newspaper described a case where a wife slapped her husband when he began having second thoughts in the middle of bidding. She demanded to continue, “I have to be sold, I want a change!”

In preparation for the auction, the husband announced it and the minimum bid in the local newspaper and registered his wife as he would any goods for sale. He led her to the marketplace by a rope tied around her neck, wrist, or waist.

In many instances, the couple prearranged both the purchaser and the price. That is if she had a lover willing to acquire her. Afterward, the three celebrated in the local tavern. If the minimum bid was low – a penny was not unheard of – then single men fought among themselves, thus significantly boosting the final price. The wife didn’t have to accept the winner if she didn’t like him.

If you read The Mayor of Casterbridge you probably remember the crux of the plot: a drunk sells his wife and daughter to another drunk for five pounds. Not a peep from the woman, no surprise from the tavern audience, no calls to police. Until recently I attributed that scene to the power of the author’s imagination. I was wrong.

This fascinating bit of history got me to thinking: was the wife-auctioning really about selling wives or getting rid of unwanted husbands? As they say, in a couple, the man is the head and the woman is the neck – and it is the neck that moves the head in the direction it wants it to move.

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