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1st May, 2020

Public Domain

Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge centers around the theme of wife selling. He is often credited with writing the novel to highlight a contemporary social evil in the same way that Dickens campaigned against abuses such as child labour. In fact, though, Hardy innocently made the mistake that many subsequent commentators have made: failing to realise that many of the “sales” of wives covered up something else entirely.

In Hardy’s story, the young Michael Henchard, an alcoholic farm hand, gets drunk at the local fair and, in a rage, sells his wife for five guineas to a sailor. This mad impulse comes back to haunt him in later life when he is prosperous and becomes the eponymous mayor.

Hardy is said to have read reports in the local Dorset newspapers of such sales taking place and to have concluded that it was an abuse that should be stopped. In fact, such sales were a legal sham. When Hardy was writing, there was no way in which the ordinary man and woman could legally obtain a divorce. Divorce – though frowned on – was possible for the well-heeled. But for working class men and women who wished to end a relationship and live with other partners, there was no alternative but “living in sin”.

This obviously had ramifications for other issues such as inheritance and the legal status of their children.  When a couple married in church, they married in the eyes of the law by virtue of signing a register. But if they chose to part and marry another, there was no such register, no piece of paper to witness their actions.

To get around this, couples who wished to divorce resorted to the ruse of going through the motions of a sale. The “buyer” would pay a sum of money – often a token amount such as one shilling or half-a-crown — and  would get a signed receipt for the cash – legal proof of the transaction. The “seller” would get a signed and dated bill of sale.  This was as close as the common man, or woman, could get to a legal document of the living arrangements they chose to make.

A similar legal charade took place in the buying and selling of property. Land is owned by the monarch and, until legal reforms in the nineteenth century, was held in the monarch’s name by a lord of the manor in return for services such as providing men at arms in time of war. Ordinary people rented their home, farm or smallholding from the lord of the manor in return for rent – often farm produce. There was no legal conveyancing of property.  So if someone wished to buy another’s house or cottage they enacted a charade in which the buyer brought a “suit of ejectment” against the seller. The written judgement obtained from the court was the only form of title deed that was available to make the sale.

Enacting a legal charade of this kind was sometimes considered to be a risky business. What if the lord of the manor objected or, even worse, some royal official got wind of money changing hands?

To preserve their anonymity, the parties to such legal charades resorted to the use of pseudonyms – “John Doe” and “Richard Roe”.

Richard Milton is a writer and journalist

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