P&P 200: Wife Selling at Pemberley
A catchier title than Elizabeth Braves the Slop, Part Three, (Didn’t want to title Part One thus and gave the theme/intrigue away prematurely ).
Rage filled Elizabeth. She left Tetty and charged toward the old man, now scraping the mud off one foot against the trunk of a tree. “Mr. Feild—”
“You’d be wanting to box for my ears for what Tetty’s been telling you, I suppose?” He interrupted without pausing his scraping.
“Is it true?” She forced herself to speak in a calm voice. “You bought her at the Buxton fair?
He examined his scraped foot and made a face. “Guilty as charged.”
Her hands balled into fists. “And now you’re planning to sell her at Bakewell?”
“That’s what she wants.” He lowered one foot and raised the other to the trunk. “Ran and hid in the dovecote when I said I have no shoes to take her there.”
For the first time in her life, Elizabeth wished to inflict physical harm on another person. “How dare you, buying and selling a woman as if she was a piece—”
“No, not horseflesh, Ma’am.” His eyes fierce, both feet on the ground, he faced her. “She’s worth less than horseflesh.”
She was now Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley, not Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn, she reminded herself and pressed her balled fists against her sides. Not trusting herself to speak, she clenched her teeth and glared at him.
“There are men who value their horsefleshes more than their wives,” his voice harsh, he continued, advancing closer. “Her previous husband, a gin-soused brute, had arranged with her lover, the baker, the sale of Tetty at the public auction in exchange for the baker’s mare.”
Unclenching her fists, she exhaled a slow breath and took a step back. His ire was not directed at her or Tetty, but at the two men, she realized. She, as was her wont, had jumped to conclusion and misjudged a man without understanding the whole backstory. “I’m sorry I’ve mistaken the situation.”
He turned and stared unblinkingly at the dovecote, where a flock of birds was now exiting through the lantern. “You know what the most shameful part of it all is, Mrs. Darcy?”
She glanced at Tetty, who was now worrying the halter with her fingers and staring at them. Though Elizabeth could hazard a guess to his question, she faced him and answered simply, “No.”
“That the foolish girl accepted the transaction. She wore that halter around her neck without shame, thinking and accepting she had neither choice nor power to refuse.” He stopped and rubbed his hatless head in a weary gesture. “In a foolish fit of chivalry, I impulsively decided to give her some power.”
“You stepped in and bought her.”
His eyes bleak, he gave her a wry smile.”My hat, my coat, and my shoes were a better bargain than the sick, old nag of the baker’s.”
Her gaze dropped to her half-boots. Tetty may not have allowed herself to feel humiliation at her circumstance. She had no choice but to submit. A man’s wife was his property. According to the laws, a woman ceased to her own person, her own legal entity, the moment she was married.
“At least I talked her into wearing the halter around her arm instead of her neck. She refused to take off the halter ’cause she’s fearful I mean to keep her and not sell her,” he continued, his voice a mixture of sadness and disgust. “Even if I wanted to—and, trust me, I do not—I cannot keep a wife, much less one young enough to be my granddaughter.”
The grimace in his face revealed more of his abhorrence to the idea than his last words did. She again glanced at Tetty, now sitting on a rock and waiting patiently. “What will you do with her?”
He sighed. “I’d give her to the next decent man I’d see for nothing, but that would mean her value is…”
“Less than what you paid for her,” she finished when he stopped, looking as if he was embarrassed about his sentimentality.
“It’s a rare man who’d value a woman who brought him nothing materially.”
Not so rare. She thought of her husband. Reminded of her dear Fitzwilliam and his struggle to win her portionless hand, she smiled at Mr. Feild.
He blinked and quickly backed away. “Is this how the young Master was bewitched? You flashed that bright smile at him, and with your pair of fine eyes—”
“Never mind about that,” she impatiently interrupted. “I believe I may have a way to relieve you of your current difficulty.”
He crossed his arms and shook his head. “Wouldn’t work, Mrs. Darcy.”
She scowled. “You have not heard of my idea.”
“You offering her a position at Pemberley’s bakehouse wouldn’t work. She wants to be married with her own establishment, preferably to a baker so she can eat all the tarts she wants, she told me on the cart ride.”
Not surprised the wily old man guessed her intention, Elizabeth instructed him, “Wait here.”
“The young master’s aware you’re dictatorial as well as obstinate?”
She ignored him and hurried back to Tetty. It took her but a few short minutes of conversation before Tetty handed her the halter and, with nary a glance toward Mr. Feild, ran off in the direction of the two outbuildings. Holding the halter in one hand, Elizabeth headed back toward Mr. Feild.
He again doffed his imaginary hat and bowed to her. “Happy to see I was wrong about what Tetty wanted, Mrs. Darcy.”
“You were not wrong.” She corrected. “She does want to be married to a man with an establishment.”
His face bore the wretched expression of a man faced with a distasteful task. His shoulders slumped, he said, “I best be seeing about borrowing a pair of shoes for the walk to Bakewell.”
“However, I persuaded her to wait until she has earned enough to save for an adequate dowry. With an adequate dowry, she’d make an attractive partner to a baker or even an innkeeper. She can choose her own man.”
He straightened and exhaled a breath, his relief palpable.
She continued, “Until then, she’s going to be employed at the bakehouse. I shall talk to Mrs. Reynolds.”
He gave her a sly smile. “Perhaps I could persuade me wife to slip me a tart or two each day.”
“You may have five tarts a day from Pemberley’s bakehouse if you wished, but she is no longer your wife.” Despite being informed that her ‘wedding’ and therefore her ‘marriage’ was not legal, Tetty was insistent she was married until Elizabeth came up with a creative solution. She held up the halter to Mr. Feild. “I told her I’d bought her from you.”
His smile turned broad. “And what was my payment, Mrs. Darcy?”
“A hat, a coat, and a pair of shoes.” She walked away. “And, the added position of cleaner of the dovecote.”
His voice indignant, he followed her. “For all my trouble, I now have to clean pigeons’ slop?”
Lightly swinging the halter, she threw him her own sly smile. “As your *perquisite, you may sell it all to the tanner for extra income.”
“That’s mighty generous of you, Mrs. Darcy.” He started to dance but checked himself. “You’re certain the gamekeeper and the master are going to agree to my having the slop?”
She stopped and favored him with a glare worthy of her husband’s imperious aunt. “I do not know nor care if the gamekeeper agrees. As to my husband, rest assure he supports whatever decision I make as Mistress.”
He studied her for a long moment, then a gleam of respect appeared in his eyes. His bow this time was low. And sincere. “Mrs. Darcy, you may be young, but you know your own power.”
She inclined her head and left him to his celebratory dance.
Heading towards the tradesman’s entrance, she retraced her steps. Once she talked to the gamekeeper and Mrs. Reynolds about the Feilds, she would inspect and learn the function of every one of the sixty-six household offices of her home, however long that took. After she mastered the inside, she would next turn her attention to learning about the dairy, the hoggery, the stew ponds and so forth.
She may not be the daughter of an earl as the late Lady Anne Darcy was, she may not be heiress to a large estate as Fitzwilliam’s cousin Anne de Bourgh was, she may not be in possession of twenty-thousand pounds dowry as Miss Bingley was, but, Elizabeth paused on a mound, a small smile tugged at her lips as she surveyed her home, not many women would have turned down a marriage proposal from a Master of Pemberley.
Yes, she, Elizabeth Darcy, knew her own power. Fitzwilliam knew she’d accepted his second proposal because she’d come to love him for himself, not for his power as Master of Pemberley.
Her power came from knowing she’d given him that gift.
Wife-selling in England, though illegal, did not always lead to prosecution. The practice was reported as early as the 13th century, but believed to start some time in the late 17th century, peaked around the turn of late 18th, early 19th century, and finally decreased during the puritanical Victorian age around the middle of the 19th century (though, there were reports of wife selling even at the beginning of 20th century). There are about 300-400 reported cases documented.
Much like a cattle (the venue is usually at the cattle auction at fairs), the wife wore a halter around her neck, arm, or waist. Oftentimes, but not always, it was a prearranged ‘sale,’ with the buyer, the wife’s lover (keep in mind these reports, in newspapers etc…,were written by men) agreeing to the purchase beforehand. The public venue of the cattle market/fair was what the parties involved believed gave it legitimacy.
*Perquisite are ‘perks’ that come with certain servant positions, a way for them to supplement their meager income (although I’m sure the Darcys pay their servants very well!). Fat drippings would be the cook’s perquisite (to sell to the chandler for candle making), the stubs of candles and the leftover wines the butler’s perquisite, the mistress’s discarded clothes the lady maid’s, and so forth…
While pigeon’s slop may not be something a modern gal like moi would like to have as a bonus, to a servant like Diggory Feild back then, that’s a very generous source of income Elizabeth has given him. Pigeons’ slop was considered very valuable—as fertilizer, as a source of saltpetre for gunpowder, and as leather softener.
Ahem… comments are like perquisites for authors. (Btw, due to technical difficulty of web servers etc, we had some comments and replies disappeared yesterday. Our apologies. We’re working to retrieve those, but problem’s fixed).
Nina Benneton is the author of Compulsively Mr. Darcy, and a 2013 release, Spices of Pemberley.