If you’re stuck for an entertaining summer read, why not try Maria Nicolaou’s Divorced, Beheaded, Sold, published by Pen & Sword History?
It’s easy to make the assumption that divorce is relatively modern. Books and films tell us
that unhappy marriage was all but inescapable: Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre tries to marry Jane bigamously because he cannot divorce his insane wife. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice barely tolerate each other, but still continue to cohabit because they seem to have no other option. Even in the 1920s setting of Downton Abbey, Lady Edith’s lover Michael Gregson has to resort to moving to Germany to be able to legally divorce his current wife, and the stigma that accompanies it would be enough to destroy Edith’s life in London society. It’s therefore unsurprising that so many people have no idea about how far back the history of separation and divorce stretches. Henry VIII and his six wives are probably some of the only well-known examples in England that you can think of before the twentieth century.
Maria Nicolaou introduces us to “those who were determined to defy convention and who succeeded in escaping their marriages”, and reveals how they did so in the days before divorce was readily available – from committing bigamy to selling a wife at market. Her book is full of colorful characters and warring spouses, like Captain Blood, who bribed judges and deliberately bankrupted himself to escape giving his wife alimony; the Duke of Grafton, who hired an army of detectives to spy on his wife and obtain proof of her adultery; and Marion Jones, who recruited a gang to take back her property from her husband.
Nicolaou goes into great detail about the different ways people would end marriages, one of the most unsavory being “wife sales”: men would auction off their wives in the same way as they would auction cattle, and the purchaser would be considered the woman’s new husband. Although not technically legal, blind eyes were turned. Wife sales were still taking place as late as the early twentieth century, with one being on record from 1919.
Here at Casemate Athena, one of our favorite stories featured in the book is that of Teresia Constantia Phillips – or ‘Con’ for short, who filled a pistol with firework powder and shot at her estranged husband and a gang of his friends to prevent them entering her home at 2am. The judge was so amused by the story that she was released with no charge. Con became a notorious bigamist and courtesan, moving from husband to lover to husband to keep herself in the manner to which she had become accustomed. Buy the book to read about Con’s whole life story!