The Wife Sale in The Mayor of Casterbridge

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario

In the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) Michael Henchard sells his wife, much to the incredulity of contemporary critics who could not believe, apparently, that such transactions had ever occurred on English soil in the nineteenth century. And yet the old ballad sheet "Wives for Sale" (reproduced in the 1988 number of The Thomas Hardy Year Book from an illustration in Samuel Pyeatt Menefee's ethnographic study of British popular divorce [Oxford: Blackwells, 1981]) indicates that in rural districts this was a mutually-agreeable way among the peasantry of dissolving dysfunctional marriages. Hardy justifies his use of the plot device early in Chapter 4:

It may seem strange to sophisticated minds that a sane young matron could believe in the seriousness of such a transfer; and were there not numerous other instances of the same belief the thing might scarcely be credited. But she was by no means the first or last peasant woman who had religiously adhered to her purchaser, as too many rural records show.

In the Macmillan edition of the novel published for Canadian high schools in 1962, editors Andrew A. Orr and Vivian De Sola Pinto point out that the novelist had researched the wife-selling tradition in British newspapers of the early nineteenth century:

Thomas Hardy had heard of such a case at Portland [not far from Dorchester, on the English Channel], and that it suggested this incident to him. In the "Observer" of March 24, 1833, the following extract from the "Blackburn Gazette" appeared: "Sale of a Wife--A grinder named Calton sold his wife publicly in the market place, Stockport, on Monday week. She was purchased by a shop-mate of the husband for a gallon of beer. The fair one, who had a halter round her neck, seemed quite agreeable."

This extract suggests that the parties in the transaction (unlike those in The Mayor of Casterbridge) were all well-known to one another, and the husband, motivated by a desire for a quantity of beer, may have been an alcoholic, as Hardy intimates by Susan's remarks as well as by Henchard's teetotaling pledge that young Michael Henchard was. The halter around the woman's neck, a demeaning detail to modern readers, undoubtedly connects the affair with the auctioning off of livestock at agricultural fairs such as that in Weyhill (Hardy's "Weydon-Priors), held near Andover in Hampshire in the second week of October ever since Queen Elizabeth granted it a charter to do so in 1599.

In the 1997 Penguin edition (revised in 2003), Keith Wilson notes that Hardy copied into his "Facts from Newspapers, Histories, Biographies, & other chronicles" notebook (now in the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester) newspaper accounts of three such sales, in particular the Dorset County Chronicle, whose issues from the 1820s he explored in 1884 in preparing to write The Mayor of Casterbridge. Wilson remarks upon a particular article from the decade in which the tale is initially set:

Given the wife's price and the horse-trading mode of her delivery, one of these entries, dated 6 December 1827, is particularly relevant: 'Selling wife. At Buckland, nr. Frome, a labring [sic] man named Charles Pearce sold his wife to a shoemaker named Elton for 5, & delivered her in a halter in the public street. She seemed very willing. Bells rang.' See Christine Winfield, "Factual Sources of Two Episodes in The Mayor of Casterbridge (Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25 [1970], 224-31. (Page 328)


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Last modified 25 September 2003