Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Thank you, Shakespeare, for my life."

by David Blixt, Finalist in the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction

I always hated Shakespeare.

They made me read him. In junior high, it was Julius Caesar. In high school, first it was Romeo & Juliet (which was cool only because we wasted a week watching the movie), then it was Henry IV Part One, to which I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding’ and scraped through by listening to class discussions.

The Bard of Avon and I were not friendly. Which is why it’s so wonderfully ironic that he now dominates my life.

At the end of high school, I had a choice between a reading-Shakespeare and an acting-Shakespeare class. I was already acting, so the choice was easy. As it happened, the teachers had chosen Romeo & Juliet that year, mainly because they had a Juliet in mind. I remembered from the film that Mercutio was the best part in that show, and after auditioning against the rest of the class, I landed the part.

It was somewhere in the middle of rehearsals when I realized that my teachers had been holding out on me. You don’t read Shakespeare – you perform him. It’s not literature to be scanned, but language to be spoken by real, living, breathing people. What language! What power! What humanity!

Thus started my love affair with the Bard of Avon. Today I am a Shakespearean actor, something I would never have believed in my youth. Moreover, after giving me a career, Billy Shakes did me one better and introduced me to my wife. I met Jan playing Petruchio to her Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, giving us banter material for the rest of our lives.

And then, as if all that were not enough, Shakespeare got me to write novels.

Once again it starts with Romeo & Juliet. I’ve long been of the opinion that directors miss the point of the show. I like to compare it to the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937. Before the film was released, it was called ‘Disney’s Folly.’ Who was going to sit through a feature-length cartoon? Insanity! But grown men and women left the premiere of the film crying, the critics went nuts with praise, every song became a top 10 hit, and theatre owners were forced to change seat-covers after every showing because of kids wetting themselves in terror and joy. No one had ever seen anything like it.

That’s what I think Romeo & Juliet was for the mid-1590s. It’s not a Tragedy, it bears no resemblance to Hamlet or Othello or the Scottish Play. It’s something much worse – a Comedy that goes wrong. The horror lies in the fact that first the play makes us laugh, then pulls the rug out, leaving us all confused and bewildered.

I expressed my views a few times, and suddenly found myself approached to direct the show. Warily, I accepted. It was my first time directing Shakespeare. I read old versions of the play and Shakespeare’s source materials. I poured through the whole text in a way I’d never done as an actor. Poking around for lines to cut, I found something.

I found a cause for the feud.

The cause is never actually mentioned in the play, and it’s not vital to either the actor’s or the audience’s understanding of the show. At the top of Act One, the ‘ancient grudge’ is established fact.

I was cutting the script for length and was doing well when I reached the final scene. Paris is slain, Romeo and Juliet both snuff it – we’re firmly into the denouement. Suddenly a line leapt out at me. Capulet and his wife find their daughter's bleeding body. Romeo’s father, Lord Montague, enters to tomb, and the Prince addresses him: ‘Come, Montague, for thou art early up / To see thy son and heir now early down.’

Montague replies:

    Alas, my liege, my wife is dead tonight;
    Grief of my son’s exile hath stopped her breath.
    What further woe conspires against my age?


So clearly I didn’t need Lady Montague for the final scene. I flipped back to find her last appearance. She’s listed as entering in Act Three, Scene Four, when Mercutio and Tybalt both buy it – but she’s strangely quiet in that scene. Lord Capulet, too, but at least people talk to him. No one addresses Romeo’s mom, even when her son is banished. In fact, looking at it harder, Lady Montague hasn't been heard from since Act One, Scene One, in which she uttered a mere two lines!

So this was my quandary – should I cut Montague’s lines at the end of the show? Why not? The play is basically over. We’ve just watched the two romantic leads die pitiably. Why do we care if some woman we barely remember is dead?

Still, it continued to bother me. There had to be a reason she was dead. (Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, there was a very good reason: the actor who played Lady Montague was probably needed in another role – the exigencies of the stage.)

Still, I couldn't let go of the line. My wife is dead tonight. The rules of dramatic structure nagged at me. An off-stage death like that is supposed to be symbolic. Death is symbolic of an ending. But what ends at the end of the play?

I was going about my business later that week when it hit me – the feud! The thing that gets closure at the end of the show is the feud! Montague and Capulet bury the hatchet. They're even going to build statues to honor their dead kids. Could Lady Montague’s death be symbolic of the end of the feud? The only way that could work would be –

If she were the cause of the feud. 

I experienced a breathless moment as the idea formed: a love triangle a generation earlier, between the parents! Romeo’s mother, engaged to young Capulet, runs off with young Montague instead. That’s certainly cause for a feud. And wouldn’t it be worse if young Capulet and Montague were friends, best friends, torn apart by their love for a woman. A feud born of love, dies with love.

This idea explained so much in the play. Lord Capulet, Juliet's doting father, suddenly threatening to kill her for refusing to marry the man he’s chosen for her, telling her to ‘hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’. This from a man who has called her ‘the hopeful lady of my earth.’ His fury seems to come out of nowhere and is brutally excessive. But if his own bride-to-be had jilted him to run off with his best friend, of course Juliet’s similar behavior would press his buttons.

This notion also goes on to inform much of Capulet's relationship with his wife – a younger wife, we know from the script, not well content in her match, married to a man who thinks she is ‘marred.’ It hints, in turn, at her relationship with Tybalt. In fact, the behavior of both families is wonderfully colored by this single, simple idea. Romeo’s mom jilted Juliet’s dad.

Oddly enough, all this doesn’t affect the actual performance of the show at all. It’s fun for the actors to play, and there are moments when it can be very clear, but the play stands, as it always has, on its action and language. The backstory ends up being superfluous.

But the idea had its hooks in me and wouldn’t let go. Throughout the following year, I was unable to leave it behind. The play was done, but my research continued.

Submerging myself in the history of Verona, I discovered some interesting facts. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the time the tale of the star-cross’d lovers supposedly took place, Dante was in Verona. Giotto was in Verona. Petrarch was in Verona. In a very real sense the Renaissance began, not in Florence as I’d assumed, but in Verona.

I cracked open earlier versions of the play, the short stories (some not so short) that were Shakespeare’s sources, and then back further to his sources’ sources. Luigi da Porto pinpoints a four year period wherein the tale is supposed to take place – during the reign of one Bartolomeo della Scala.

Della Scala? Shakespeare’s Prince of Verona is named Escalus, a Latinized version of della Scala. But the name was ringing another bell. I went back and found that Dante had dedicated the final third of his Divine Comedy, Paradiso, to Bartolomeo’s little brother, Cangrande della Scala.

Cangrande. It didn’t mean much at the time. But it would.

As I was running around doing historical research, I was also pleasure-reading. I am a glutton for well-written historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome’ series, all of it. At the time, though, at the suggestion of my future wife, I was reading Dorothy Dunnett.

To me, Dunnett is the pinnacle of the genre. Her writing is smart and densely layered. You have to earn Dunnett, but once you’re in her world, there’s no going back. She weaves a tapestry so fine, so richly detailed, so at the core of human experience, that each of her books are a treasure. It was Dunnett more than any other writer who showed me that a book can be intelligent, dark, witty, gruesome, and exciting all at once. Her death was a heart-breaking loss to literature.

But back in early 2000 I hadn’t yet completed even the first of her series of historical novels. I wasn’t fully able to enjoy The Lymond Chronicles because Dante and the rest of the Verona cast kept crowding my brain. So I temporarily laid her books aside and started to write.

It was going to be short, more a novella than anything. Two friends in love with the same woman have a falling out over her. Simple, sweet, it would get the idea out of my system.

The first couple attempts I couldn’t find the voice. I was obsessed with the notion of the feud, which I thought was the core of my book. But while the origin of the Capulet/Montague feud fascinated me, it was the backdrop – the della Scalas, Giotto, Dante – that kept leaping to the fore.

I fought halfway through a bad version before I realized I wasn’t writing the story I wanted to tell. More research, more false starts. Finally I took a deep breath and settled in to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, something I would have bet money against at any other point in my life. It wasn’t the great revelation Shakespeare was, but it did give me the landscape of the time. And halfway through Dante knocked my socks off by mentioning the feud between the Capelletti and the Montecchi. Capulet and Montagues, anyone?

In reading both the history of the period and the footnotes to Dante’s work, one man’s name kept cropping up. A man who stood above all his peers, outshone the luminaries of his day. Giotto’s patron, Dante’s friend. A man fit to be a tragic hero of one of Shakespeare’s plays. Cangrande della Scala, known as the Greyhound of Verona. Revered as almost a God in his own lifetime, the man took Verona to its highest height, just before its worst fall.

Tall and handsome, with a smile famous for its joy and perfect set of teeth, he was successful in everything he did – warrior, lover, reveler, patron of the arts. Under his rule Verona was a hub of commercial and artistic growth. It was also hated and feared by its neighbors. Venice conspired against Cangrande, as did popes and emperors. He waged an almost-unceasing war with nearby Padua, finally winning through benevolence, not battle.

Cangrande’s life fascinated me as much as any play I’d ever read. Because he reminded me of someone, a rogue I had fallen in love with the first time I played him. The ties between Shakespeare and Dante were growing.

Soon I was reading about Dante himself – his wit, his loves, his politics, his exile, his family. It was then that it happened – one of those moments you hear writers talk about, where a character steps off the page and introduces himself as the lead.

Pietro Alighieri, also known as Pietro di Dante. Barely eighteen when my story starts, he came upon the scene and knocked down all my plans, which is very unlike him because he’s such a good guy. A really good guy, the kind of guy I’d want to play if I didn’t enjoy scoundrels so much. Raised in his father’s ever-growing shadow, he was a prospectless second son until the death of his elder brother elevated him to heir.

With no particular skill in anything, just great heart and determination, he gave the series its initial voice, allowing us to watch his growth, feel his joys and hopes, and share his disillusionments.

But there was another element missing. If the idea for the feud was going to become the subplot, a crucial but subdued backdrop, where was my plot? What was my spine? The book seemed to be writing itself, everything falling into place, and still I didn’t know what Pietro’s goal was.

All good actors, when they are lost, return to the text. That goes for directors and, it seems, writers. I sat down and once again poured through the story of the star-cross’d lovers.

Then it came, the answer. In my mind, the Bard of Avon chuckled as he met Dante’s son and gave him his raison d’etre. I had come full circle, the best of all possible worlds.

Mercutio. Of course, Mercutio. Referred to as both a cousin to the Prince, and ‘the Prince’s near ally,’ Mercutio was in some way tied to the della Scala family. The pivotal figure of Romeo & Juliet would be only a newborn babe when my story began. We couldn’t follow him, not from the outset – following the adventures of a toddler in fourteenth century Italy is not what I call exciting. But following the trials and tribulations of his protector, young Pietro Alighieri – that had promise!

All at once it was Mercutio’s story. The possibility of creating from Shakespeare’s text and real history the tale of this marvelously troubled young man was just too tempting. I could explain the darkness in the Queen Mab speech, from his disdain of love and his homoerotic tendencies to his fear of war drums and his foul images of childbirth. Shakespeare’s Mercutio has a wealth of possibility, and if I could tap even a little of it, I had the makings of a great story.

Moreover, bringing it back to Shakespeare led me to look at the phrase ‘star-cross’d,’ which carries elements of both prophecy and futility. Looking closely, Mercutio is the agent of the stars, because his death is what leads the young lovers to their fate. So Mercutio is a tool of the heavens.

Dante uses prophecy often. The Inferno begins with a retooling of an ancient one regarding the mythical Greyhound, a man who will save Italy and take it into another age. I knew from my reading that scholars have often speculated that Dante was referring to Cangrande – but what if he meant someone else?

Here I was faced with a decision – can I bring the prophecies of Shakespeare and Dante together, roll them together, and slap them on a defenseless child still in his crib? Am I that cruel?

Turns out I am. Researching astrology and numerology, I came up with a prophetic doom revolving around Dante’s Greyhound that all my characters could struggle against, in vain. With the advantage of hindsight, I can say that the ‘new age of man’ alluded to in the Greyhound prophecy was the Renaissance.

The stars aligned, the story poured out. Once into the thick of it, I started seeing connections with the Bard's other Italian plays. Characters and events from The Taming of the Shrew are actually mentioned in R&J, so Kate and Petruchio make cameo appearances. There are characters from Two Gentlemen of Verona, of course, but others as well – Shylock, Don Pedro of Aragon and his nasty bastard brother. The Duke from Measure for Measure (also an Escalus) is mentioned in passing. The original idea of the Montague/Capulet feud blossomed into a panoramic story about Shakespeare’s characters living in Dante’s world.

The book ended, sold, and was published. But I was nowhere near finished. The Master of Verona was followed by Voice of the Falconer and Fortune's Fool. Pietro became a man, and the child grew, becoming more and more the focus of the story. The Prince’s Doom is the tale of him stepping into manhood, with wonderful and disastrous results. The story is now fully Mercutio’s.

I’m hard pressed to choose a favorite. Everyone likes beginnings. Some people like the sticky middle. But I think of the whole series to date as a symphony. Themes were built early on, providing familiar ground. Then more instruments came in, digressing and intriguing. But this, this is the swelling crescendo, where all the elements come together to pull the spirit straight out of the chest and into the air. It has something for everyone – mystery, romance, murder, war, politics, law, whimsy, horror, chills, pathos, hope, and ruin.

I read somewhere that when Alan Alda met Donald Sutherland, he simply took the other man’s hand and said, “Thank you for my life.” If Shakespeare were alive today, I’m sure that’s what I’d have to say.

But I'd start by telling him how I'd always hated him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

David Blixt is the author of seven novels, most recently The Prince’s Doom, the fourth volume in the Star-Cross’d series, which began with The Master Of Verona and continued through Voice Of The Falconer. The third volume, Fortune’s Fool, was Editor’s Choice for the Historical Novel Society in 2013. The Prince’s Doom is a Finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction.

Born in Ann Arbor and now living in Chicago, David’s career began in theatre. Drawn to classical works, he’s traveled far and wide, performing Aristophanes in ancient amphitheatres, Shakespeare in re-creations of the Globe, acting and designing theatrical combat for national productions. In 2014 David won a Wilde Award for Best Actor In A Comedy for his portrayal of Algernon in The Importance Of Being Earnest.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Wally Schwabe – Astride Two Eras

by Greg Taylor, Finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction, writing from the Cunard Line's Lusitania Remembered Voyage.

How I imagine Wally
might have appeared
Walburga Schwabe does not exist outside the pages of Lusitania R.E.X. However, the four people on whom her character is based certainly did exist and their tales are remarkable in their own right. Wally, as she is known in the book, straddles the pre-and post-war periods. An American of German descent, she is well versed in how a young woman of the Edwardian era should behave. However, when Wally arrives for her studies in Potsdam after crossing on the Lusitania in 1911, she is looking for adventure. Wally is imbibed with the emerging spirit of a new age where women are assertive and sometimes downright reckless.

Though fictional, Wally is a composite of the following four real people.

Schoolmate of Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia. In May, 1913, the youngest child and only daughter of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was married in Berlin. She was the apple of her father’s eye and when Princess Viktoria Luise, known as Sissy, fell in love with Ernst, heir to the Hanoverian throne, it put her father in an awkward position.

Wedding photo of Sissy and Ernst
Sissy had fallen in love with the son of a King that was deposed by Prussian armies at the command of Otto von Bismarck, chancellor to Sissy’s great-grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I. Hanover was annexed to Prussia and the Guelph d’Este family, who had ruled Hanover for 800 years, went into exile in Austria. In a true Romeo and Juliet tale, the lovers from two families that had been enemies for sixty years, were at least given permission to marry.

The Tsar and George V at the wedding
The wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter at the Berlin Schloss, destroyed during World War Two but currently being rebuilt, was the pinnacle of pre-war aristocratic spectacle. It is the last time that the Kaiser, the Tsar and George V, all cousins, ever saw one another. The Kaiser wore a British Royal Dragoons uniform and the Russian Order of St. Andrew, thus paying respects to both his English and Russian relatives. King George V wore a Prussian Dragoons uniform and the Order of the Black Eagle.

Queen Mary wearing the Cullinan diamonds
The Kaiserin arrived on the arm of the groom’s father and wore her signature five strands of pearls, a diadem of diamonds and an emerald collar. She was eclipsed, however, when the Tsar, also wearing a German uniform, led Queen Mary of England to her seat wearing the George IV State Diadem, nine diamond necklaces and, suspended from the lowest two, massive diamonds of ninety-four and sixty-three carats cut from the famous Cullinan diamond.

The guests hailed from the noblest families of Europe but there was one surprising addition: an American school friend of the Princess. Despite her rank, Princess Sissy befriended a student from America and insisted that she receive an invitation to the imperial wedding. Perhaps the Princess found the modern views of her American schoolmate refreshing after the formalities and strict etiquette of the Prussian court. In Lusitania R.E.X, this lucky American girl is Wally Schwabe.

Paul Crompton family
Niece of Alfred Booth, Chairman of Cunard Lines. Alfred Booth forsook the family shipping business founded by his father and uncle to work for larger rival Cunard Lines, eventually becoming its chairman. The son of his cousin, Paul Crompton, was a partner in the family business, Alfred Booth & Company, and managed the company’s interests in Philadelphia. Paul sailed on the Lusitania on May 1st, 1915 with his wife Gladys (née Schwabe) and their six children and nanny. After being struck by a torpedo on the last day of the crossing, within sight of the Irish shore, the Lusitania sank in only eighteen minutes. The entire Crompton family perished along with the nanny.

In Lusitania R.E.X, Gladys has a younger sister, named Walburga, or Wally, who also embarks on the Lusitania on May 1st 1915. Wally happily benefits from brother-in-law Paul’s connection to Alfred Booth, even taking up Paul’s childhood name for Alfred Booth and calling him Uncle Rhed. Unlike her older sister, Wally is an adventuress and has ideas about helping end the war engulfing Europe that embroil her in intrigue and a mysterious cargo aboard the Lusitania.

Alfred Vanderbilt
Woman rescued by Alfred Vanderbilt. There are numerous accounts of Alfred Vanderbilt gathering children to put into the lifeboats during the final moments of the Lusitania sinking, assisted by his valet Denyer. It was also widely reported that he gave his lifebelt to a woman passenger, knowing that he could not swim. Alice Middleton is the Lusitania passenger to whom Alfred Vanderbilt gave his lifebelt.

In Lusitania R.E.X, it is Wally Schwabe that Alfred gives his lifebelt to so that she can be saved from drowning. In the novel, Alfred has also given something to Wally that she is dutifully carrying as the ship lists to thirty degrees and goes under at the bows. Wally knows that she must survive in order to deliver this bequest of Alfred that could change the outcome of World War One.

Woman shot from Lusitania Funnel. The Lusitania was built with longitudinal coal bunkers; an old navy design intended to protect machinery from shellfire. The Admiralty played a major role in her design since the Lusitania and her sister ship the Mauretania were built with government loans on condition they could be used as armed cruisers. The design may be effective against shells, but it is disastrous if a ship is struck below the waterline by a torpedo.

The funnels of the Lusitania
On May 7th, 1915, a single torpedo fired by the U20 struck the Lusitania. Captain Schwieger of the U20 was surprised when a second, much larger explosion, violently shook the ship. As the water rushed into the longitudinal coal bunkers, the Lusitania began to list at once to starboard in addition to going under at the bows. By the time water was rushing over the deck, the Lusitania was probably at an angle of more than thirty degrees, making it nearly impossible to launch the lifeboats. This severe list also meant that the four great funnels that towered over the liner were now looming over the passengers frantically thrashing about in the water.

Margaret Dwyer was one such passenger. When one of the massive funnels struck the water beside her, Margaret was pulled towards the yawning circle that was devouring the ocean. As the Lusitania slipped into the sea, water rushed to fill the tremendous void, dragging Margaret underwater and down the funnel toward the boiler room below. When the icy water hit the hot boilers, however, they ruptured; creating a massive cloud of steam that lifted Margaret and others out of the funnel and sent them tumbling into the water again. According to one account, Margaret lost all her clothes, and when she was pulled from the water and at last reunited with her husband, wearing only a blanket, he did not recognize her until she slapped him.

In Lusitania R.E.X, Wally gets sucked into the funnel above Boiler Room number three and dragged down in a torrent of rushing water. She is shot out again but her clothes and the item entrusted to her by Alfred Vanderbilt are gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Greg Taylor's passion for research has led him to develop first-hand relationships with the descendants of some of the characters in the book, including the Duke of Marlborough and Alfred G Vanderbilt III. He was drawn to the tale of Lusitania because he was fascinated by the cataclysm of elegant Edwardian society caused by the brutal warfare the industrial success of that society made possible. His passion for research and discovery has taken him to the numerous historical sites that appear in the book. Undergraduate studies in history at Williams College in Massachusetts and the University of Durham, England, are reflected in the book. Greg attended the School of Management at Yale University where he lives one block from The Tomb of Skull and Bones. London has been Greg's home since 2000 and he has divided his investment banking and asset management career between New York and London.


Giveaway: To Wed an Heiress by Rosanne E. Lortz

To rescue the family estate, how far is the earl willing to go?

Read more about To Wed an Heiress, a novel of romantic suspense set during the Regency era HERE.

Rosanne E. Lortz is offering one giveaway copy (paperback to residents of North America or the U.K.; e-copy to residents of everywhere else). To enter, please leave a comment on this post and include your e-mail address.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Poor Man's Divorce: The Sale of a Wife

by Lauren Gilbert


Caricature c 1820



The following notice appeared in an 1815 newspaper:
On Friday last [September 15th 1815] the common bell-man gave notice in Staines Market that the wife of ---- Issey was then at the King's Head Inn to be sold, with the consent of her husband, to any person inclined to buy her. There was a very numerous attendance to witness this singular sale, notwithstanding which only three shillings and fourpence were offered for the lot, no one choosing to contend with the bidder, for the fair object, whose merits could only be appreciated by those who knew them. This the purchaser could boast, from a long and intimate acquaintance. This degrading custom seems to be generally received by the lower classes, as of equal obligation with the most serious legal forms. 
The breakdown of a marriage is not a modern phenomenon.  Unfortunately, unhappiness in marriage was a very common situation throughout history in England (and elsewhere).  For centuries, annulment through the Catholic Church courts was an option but was not easy.  A pre-contract (an agreement to marry which was considered as binding as marriage itself), prohibited degrees of kinship (such a marriage required a dispensation; failure to obtain one would be a problem), and marriage by force or under the age of consent were all grounds for annulment.   Basically, an annulment is a statement that the marriage itself was an error.  The process was (and is) lengthy, required investigation and took several months or longer, and could be expensive in terms of donations to the church during the process.  In spite of the separation from Rome under King Henry VIII, the Protestant clergy retained similar requirements.
Divorce was another option but, again, was not easy.  In the 16th century in Europe, adultery was established as grounds for divorce and some Protestant clergy interested in ecclesiastical reform were in favour of allowing this in England, including the provision to allow the partner who had not committed adultery to remarry.  A watershed was reached when, in 1552 the Marquess of Northampton, who had separated from his first wife due to her adultery, obtained an Act of Parliament recognizing the validity of his second marriage.   Between 1700 and 1857, there were only three hundred-fourteen Acts of this nature. (1)   Women were only allowed to petition if adultery was combined with extreme cruelty and their cases had to be handled for them by a trustee as women were legally not allowed to enter into a contract.  A rare example of this is the case of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore who succeeded in obtaining a divorce, which included rescuing what remained of her inheritance and her obtaining custody of her children.  Her story is worthy of a blog of its own.  Divorce in this manner was expensive, scandalous and took a long time as well.  Obviously, it also required rank and influence.
The question comes down to this: what alternatives did someone who did not have rank or fortune have to end a marriage?  For many, the answer was simply to desert the other party.   (This was much more common for men than women.)  Given the difficulties with travel and communications, it was possible to leave one place and establish a new life in another, which some did in spite of the risk of getting caught.  Another option for a man was to put one’s wife up for sale.   Thomas Hardy used the sale of a wife as a plot device in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge.  In The Reluctant Widow, Georgette Heyer had a character reading items aloud from a periodical, which includes this note:  On Friday, a butcher exposed his wife for sale in Smithfield Market...” (2)   How did such a thing work?
There is no way to know exactly when the process of selling a wife for the purpose of ending a marriage began.  It may have occurred as early as 1073, but the first established case occurred in 1553.  At its most basic, a man ended his marriage by selling his wife to another man.  Customs used for the sale of cattle were applied: a rope was put around the wife’s neck and she was led to the marketplace, paying toll along the way, where she was sold to the highest bidder at auction.  If this weren’t humiliating enough, the price was sometimes determined by weight.   As this was an auction, the auctioneer (possibly her husband) would have described her to the crowd of purchasers, possibly praising her virtues (which could improve the chance of sale and the purchase price) or listing her flaws (another potential source of punishment and humiliation).
This process took on an official form during the late 17th century and, once sold, the woman was considered to be married to her purchaser.  Sometimes, it must be said, there was collusion as the purchaser was the woman’s lover-in some instances, the woman apparently played an active role in her sale, surprising as it may be.  Many such sales occurred at fairs,  markets and other public places.  Smithfield Market in London (see the quote from Georgette Heyer above) was apparently a popular site for such activity as about 20 wife sales were held there in the 1790’s to 1830’s(3).  It appears that being held in public caused the sale to dissolve the existing marriage and establish the new one officially.    Also, having such a sale in public would have attracted more buyers who may have had more money to spend.   It’s unclear how many such sales may have occurred, as not all were advertised or otherwise noted.  While Kirsten Olsen considers that such sales were rare, indicating that only 91 were recorded between 1730 and 1799 (4), data in Maria Nicolaou’s work suggests a much more significant number.
The reasons for the wife sales vary as much as the reasons for divorce today: inability to get along, money problems, adultery, and so forth.  Sometimes, a soldier or sailor returned home to find that his wife had taken up with another man and simply wanted to finalize the end of his marriage.  The Marriage Act of 1753 increased government control of marriage, which made it more difficult for someone to deny that a marriage had occurred; if a divorce or annulment was out of reach, a sale could end the marriage just as effectively. 
Shockingly, such sales occurred through the 19th century into the 20th century, although they declined due to changing attitudes, especially during the Victorian era, when women became perceived as more delicate creatures in need of protection, and the sales process was perceived as uncivilized.  Also, the Marriage Act of 1857 put the issue of divorce into the civil courts which made it more accessible and affordable.  According to Maria Nicolaou, in 1919, a woman from Tottenham said that her husband had sold her, and another attempted wife sale occurred in Northumbria in 1979.(5)    
Sources include:
Houlbrooke, Ralph A.  THE ENGISH FAMILY 1450-1700.  1983: Longman Group Ltd, Harlow, Essex, England.
Heyer, Georgette.  THE RELUCTANT WIDOW.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY. Published 1946, 2nd American Edition, 1971.  (Footnote 2 from page 198)
Moore, Wendy.  WEDLOCK The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore.  2009: Three Rivers Press (Random House), New York, NY.
Nicolaou, Maria.  DIVORCED, BEHEADED, SOLD Ending an English Marriage 1500-1847.  2014: Pen and Sword History, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England.  (Footnote 3 P. 139, Footnote 5 p. 137)

Olsen, Kirsten.  DAILY LIFE IN 18th-CENTURY ENGLAND.  1999: Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.  (Footnote 4 p. 47)


Parliament.UK. “Obtaining a Divorce” (no date or author shown).  http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/divorce   (Footnote 1)


Lauren Gilbert is a member of JASNA and lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel, was published in 2011 and a second novel (working title A Rational Attachment) is expected to be released later this year.  Visit her website at www.lauren-gilbert.com.