Divorce, until very recently, was regarded as a major social stigma. It occurred only in the most extreme of circumstances, and was all but impossible for the poor. But it would be foolish to assume that this meant that everyone stayed happily married.

In 18th Century England, the very rich couples could afford to live apart if things went wrong. The sophisticated city folk could turn a blind eye to their spouses' meanderings. But there were other, more creative ways out of a loveless marriage.

One such way was the wife sale. The principle was simple: A wife is a chattel of her husband, so he should be able to pass her on to any interested party by selling her. The event itself was normally held in a marketplace, where the wife would be auctioned off to the highest bidder by her husband, while she stood at the side, halter or collar round her neck. The auction would never reach that high a level, with a price of between 5 and 10 shillings typical. The woman would go home with her buyer and stay with him as if they were married.

Except it wasn't as brutal as all that. Almost always, the high-bidder was already in a relationship with the woman, and the whole sale was organised for his benefit. The woman would be willing, and the halter normally made of ribbon. It was normally an amicable arrangement, with no hard feelings on anyone's part. After all, despite the fact that there were no legal documents resulting from the sale, it was an effective way of conducting an ad hoc divorce and remarriage, with hundreds of witnesses. It was also often announced in the local newspaper. This gave it some measure of propriety.

The main objections to this practice came not from the clergy but from the cities. The practice was regarded as barbaric, quite apart from the issue that the selling husband was still legally married to his sold wife. This growing opposition, combined with changing views about the role of women in marriage and the urbanisation of Britain meant that by 1850, wife sale had practically disappeared.

The wife sale was immortalised in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. When Andy Hoyle placed his wife Mel for sale on ebay in July 2003, many were reminded of the old custom. Although the bidding reached £640, the couple were only having a joke and Mel was withdrawn from sale.


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