This seems to be the book that makes most people prick up their ears when I mention the title. Which is great, because it is an amazing story, full of humour and surprises. It also provides a lot of challenges to the notion that women were powerless.
When trawling through old newspapers some years ago I stumbled upon an account from Stamford in 1786 of a wife who was sold to Thomas Hardy — a glorious coincidence — but this one was a cordwainer of Spalding in Lincolnshire. This was interesting enough, but the event was one that haunted me for years as I struggled to understand what had happened there.
Wife sales are generally assumed to be by brutal husbands wishing to rid themselves of a woman they were tired of. But in this sale, the wife had agreed to be delivered in a halter by her husband Thomas Hand. A written agreement was signed and witnessed, and the woman dined at the head of the table when nine people celebrated the event with a dinner. She was described as showing great composure, a term generally applied to women at their wedding.
This does not read as an act of brutality or oppression; it seems more to be an act of great civility and sadness, a means of remedying an unhappy marriage. Most accounts of wife selling focus on the husband being rid of his spouse, so was seen as either brutal or sad that the hopes of the marriage had not been fulfilled. But it was also a re-marriage, so the event was often an opportunity to celebrate a new partnership, for all three of those involved to be given a second chance, to start again.
England was the only Protestant country to retain its draconian Pre-Reformation divorce laws. Yet until 1745 there was no legal definition of what constituted a marriage. Many people married in haste but were then stranded in a relationship which had lost its magic, and for many had become a prison. There is no lack of irony that England’s Reformation was triggered by the need for the monarch to separate from a barren wife to marry a new one to ensure a male heir to the throne. Yet the huge expense of divorce prevented all but a handful of divorces, all of which were driven by the same need: for the continuance of a family and is fortune.
This book is about the many and surprisingly varied wife sales. These provide valuable insights into the lives of ordinary people, and of how inventive they were when faced with the restrictions of the legal system. Though many of the sold wives were not named, their behaviour shows us that even with the oppressive laws stacked against them, many had the bravery to find their own solutions to their problems. What seems to be a story of female oppression provides us with a surprisingly broad spectrum of women and men forging their own futures, reminding us that women had rights long before there were enforced by law. Much better than the man coming home every day to find his dinner in the dog.
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