Once upon a time in December 1744…
Selling a Wife by Thomas Rowlandson (1812-14)
An ostler named Jefferyes decides to rid himself of his wife. He ties a halter around her neck and hauls her, like he would any poor beast, to an inn in Newbury called The Pelican. Inside, the second Duke of Chandos and his companion are dining and notice a commotion taking place in the yard outside.
“Wife for sale” somebody shouts. “He’s leading her around by a halter,” shouts another. “Whoopie,” shouts a third.
“What can this be?” thinks the duke. It’s not everyday he gets to witness the sale and purchase of a female, though wife selling is not an uncommon occurrence. In the days pre-dating divorce, how else is a fellow to ameliorate his unsatisfying experiences at home? He cannot kill her, or at least he ought not. No, auctioning her to the highest bidder is the right of the common man, and the duke decides he may as well see what’s being offered before he repairs to London.
Together with his companion, he ventures into the yard only to be struck by Cupid’s arrow. “Damnation,” thinks the duke. His father died this past August and because of the South Sea Bubble, the duke is left with a miserly inheritance. He cannot afford a blinding attraction to an ostler’s wife, but it’s not like he’s going to marry her. Even so… The beautiful creature before him has been humbled. She is not prideful but submits to her husband’s indictments, peeping not a word. Some who witness the scene later imagine the ostler has beaten her, and the duke swoops in as her noble rescuer. Others say the duke is so sympathetic to her plight that he believes it better to be sold by a villain than to bed down with one. Either way, he’s so overwhelmed by her charms he cannot help himself.
He buys her.
And so Ann Jeffreyes, chambermaid, is at one moment the unwanted wife of an ostler and the next the property of a duke. “How unbelievable,” she must think to herself. “How terrifying and exciting.” And then, “Yes, I’ll marry you!”
It’s true. Henry Brydges, the widower Duke of Chandos, makes his pretty purchase a duchess and a Cinderella story is born. He and Ann give life to every servant girl’s dream: one doesn’t have to be born a lady to become one. One only needs to be sold and purchased. Preferably with a duke attending her auction, but there’s always earls and viscounts to be had…