In Thomas Hardy’s great novel of 1886, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Henchard (the future Mayor, and unconscious exemplar of Schopenhauerian pessimism in philosophy)while making a poor living as an agricultural labourer, has an argument with his wife and sells her at an auction. I won’t go into how this plays out in the novel, I will just note that the sale shocks the people around, but is conducted and a buyer is found, an affable sailor of contrasting character with the proud and intense Henchard, and the sale is evidently accepted by observers.
I’ve recently seen a bit of very readable economic history which shows that wife sales, though usually of a more contrived and planned nature, were common amongst the labouring classes in nineteenth century England, as a substitute for divorce. In the early nineteenth century divorce was difficult and expense, taking place only by a private act of Parliament. Many people separated without divorce anyway, though this was difficult without the consent of the husband who owned all property of the wife, and had the right to treat the home as a prison for her. Remarriage without the nearly impossible divorce was of course illegal.
A partial way round these problems was for the husband to sell his wife, which usually meant to an admirer or outright lover of the wife, so that everything was settled to everyone’s advantage. It looks like this was largely a way in which an admirer of greater wealth than the husband could persuade him to relinquish his wife. Though this had no legal standing whatsoever the general attitude of the poorer classes was to accept it as correct by law of custom; and the authorities made very little attempt to intervene. The practice faded away in the late nineteenth century because of relative liberalisation of divorce, and relative improvements in the property rights of a married woman.
Issues of the restrictive and discriminatory nature of divorce laws feature in at at least two other Hardy novels: Jude the Obscure and Under the Greenwood Tree. There’s obviously a lot more than legal debate going on in Hardy’s novels, but as this paper demonstrates, both law and economics enter into every aspect of life. The paper does not mention the literary relevance, but any reader of Hardy will make the connection very quickly.
The paper is ‘Wife Sales‘ by Peter Leeson, Peter Boettke and Jayme Lemke, all of George Mason University. Leeson has published a book on the economics of pirates, The Invisible Hook, along with papers on law in contemporary Somalia, and Medieval trials by ordeal, all of which I’ve read and recommend.