While researching The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, my trilogy on the life of Jane Austen, I ran across a fascinating book called Judy O’Grady and the Colonel’s Lady: The Army Wife and Camp Follower Since 1660. The work is titled after a Kipling poem, in which he says the poor enlisted wife (“Judy”) and the well-to-do officer’s wife (Colonel’s lady) were “sisters under their skins.” This history of women following their soldiers into battle was written by Noel St. Johns Williams, a retired UK army officer, in 1988.
As the last of my trilogy involved a military expedition, I needed to understand the campaign from a woman’s point of view. I already knew that married women sometimes followed enlisted men off to war during Austen’s time, but I did not have any details. Nor did I know whether the wives of officers, as opposed to the lower ranks, went along. This was a critical question for my series.
Williams’ book explained the process by which women—and children—generally came along. There was a limit, usually six camp followers per hundred men, plus their kids. Women cooked, cleaned, did laundry, supported their husbands in all the other usual ways, and scoured battlefields for loot. They also sometimes clogged roads, slowing the army down, or created other trouble. Women were sometimes flogged for misbehavior.
The women received only half-rations. On difficult campaigns, they would be the first to starve. If a husband died on the campaign, the woman would need to remarry, or she would be left behind, as she was no longer a wife! Wives, however, were in great demand. New widows often had multiple marriage proposals. One woman received an offer from a sergeant, only to lament that she had already accepted a corporal. Williams confirmed that some ladies did accompany their officer husbands. Susanna Dalbiac, Lady Charlotte Harley, Colonel MacKenzie’s wife, and Lady Waldegreave are individuals known to have ridden alongside their men in the Peninsular campaign of 1808-12. Sometimes the sight of a woman on horseback on the front lines would motivate the soldiers to greater courage.
Following my rules of historical fiction, I was able to work these details in naturally over the course of a dozen scenes. My rules are three: 1) Start with as much actual history as you can. Absorb it all, enabling the information to flow naturally. 2) Use as few of the details of that history as possible so you don’t bury your story in historical asides. 3) Don’t string together historical events for their sake but create your characters’ story and use only those actual events that support it.
I also learned from Judy O’Grady another fascinating point that I felt compelled to work into my trilogy: It was legal and not uncommon to sell your wife. This point came up in an anecdote in which a military drummer stopped by the Hythe market and purchased a wife who was “not more than twenty years and of a likely figure.” We think of that time as being highly religious and marriage as being sacred. Divorce was practically impossible—it took an act of Parliament, limiting divorce to the wealthy. But women were also legally the property of their husbands. Couples from the “humbler classes” resorted to sales to end a marriage. The wife had to agree and often was as eager to shed the husband as he was to shed her.
In the illustration at the top of this post, Thomas Rowlandson shows a wife sale during the Regency era–evidently from a civilian to a soldier. The wife was brought in a halter (often a ribbon), which was handed to the purchaser as a symbol of the transfer. In this instance, the wife appears pleased with the exchange.
Though the practice was controversial, the legality was upheld more than once. The sale of wives carried on from the late 17th Century to at least 1901. Sales were usually conducted at the regular town markets to establish a large audience and increase the visibility and credibility of the actions. Notices were published in the local newspaper and the woman was auctioned off like any other stock. In July 1797, The Times apologized for failing to report “the average price for Wives for the last week” at the Smithfield market near London. The newspaper added, however, that the price had been rising at Smithfield and was now about three guineas and a half. Sales in the early 1800s showed prices ranging from about two to five shillings, indicating the relative poverty of those involved. One wife went for three shillings plus a quart of ale, showing a certain joie de vivre in the pricing structure.
Many times, the sale involved a lover and was arranged in advance. One quite expensive sale at Smithfield must have been prearranged and also must have involved people of some wealth. The woman sold for 50 guineas and a horse. She rode off with her new husband in a handsome curricle.
A fiction writer would love to juxtapose this wife-selling practice against the propriety and decorum of the courtships and marriage of the gentlemen and ladies about whom Austen wrote. It was such a juicy tidbit that I tried to find several spots to place it in my trilogy about Austen herself. As a complete scene, however, it was a wonderful but irrelevant detour. Much as he might have wanted to buy Jane for seven sheep and a goat, Ashton courted her the good old-fashioned way. As a passing reference, something that Jane might have seen out a carriage window, a wife sale was too out of context for the specific scenes in which it might have happened. It would have raised more questions than could be answered in the few words warranted by a momentary glimpse. (Imagine Austen dropping in such a reference as Catherine Morland or Anne Elliot promenaded past the market in Bath.)
Unhappy as I was at the decision, I had to leave it out. Wife-selling checked off Rule 1—not many people know about this practice—but it violated Rule 2 and 3—don’t force the story to follow history if it isn’t integral, and don’t add history just to show off your knowledge. I include it here because it’s interesting enough to carry a blog, as well as to make my points about using history in fiction.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.
The Trilogy is also available in a single “boxed set” e-book: