An unforgettable novel that transports the reader from modern-day Australia to the windswept Isle of Wight and the courtrooms of London in the 1780s.
With her marriage on the rocks, workaholic lawyer Liz Jones agrees to visit Seagrove, a stately home on the Isle of Wight, while she quietly investigates its provenance on behalf of a client. When she discovers Seagrove is linked to a notorious eighteenth-century court case, Liz becomes fascinated – not only by the house and its history, but also by its current owners.
In the winter of 1789, the infamous Delany Nash scandalised London when details of her alleged affair with her husband's brother were aired in a public courtroom. Yet her journals reveal an extraordinary woman's tale of passion, betrayal and heartbreak.
Captivated by Delany's story, Liz delves into her research but the more she uncovers, the more she risks jeopardising the future of everyone at Seagrove. For there are dark secrets that surround the house, and when the truth emerges the repercussions will echo down through the centuries.
The Wife's Tale is a mesmerising story of love, loyalty and sacrifice.
Christine Wells worked as a corporate lawyer in a city firm before exchanging contracts and prospectuses for a different kind of fiction. In her novels, she draws on a lifelong love of British history and an abiding fascination for the way laws shape and reflect society. Christine is devoted to big dogs, good coffee, beachside holidays and Antiques Roadshow, but above all to her husband and two sons who live with her in Brisbane.
The Wife's Tale
Author: Christine Wells
Question: What inspired the story of The Wife's Tale?
Christine Wells: I think it was the feminist in me firing up! As a former lawyer, I wanted to write historical fiction with a focus on how the law has traditionally treated women differently from men.
I read about a legal action a husband could take in the late eighteenth century where he sued his wife's lover for 'debauching" her. The husband could be awarded millions of dollars in today's money for this insult. The basis of the action was that the wife was the husband's chattel. By sleeping with her, the lover was -damaging the goods'. To add insult to injury, the amount the husband could recover in damages depended on the wife's perceived value. Her value hinged primarily on her chastity but also noted as added value features were her beauty and feminine accomplishments. The wife had no representation in court and had to suffer lies being told about her character by both sides. Of course, there was no reciprocal action the wife could take until much later, before the action was abolished entirely. The reasoning for this lopsidedness was that if the wife was her husband's chattel, he could not also be hers.
The first woman to campaign for child custody rights, the writer Caroline Norton, was subjected to one of these criminal conversation trials. Even though the alleged lover (the Prime Minister at the time) was found not guilty of criminal conversation, Caroline's husband not only refused to support her as he was obliged by law to do, but he took all the money she earned from her writing because as her husband, he owned everything she possessed including any assets she generated before or while married to him. In those days, with a very few exceptions wives literally owned nothing, not even the clothes on their backs or the product of their own imaginations and hard work. Caroline's story infuriated me so much, I had to write about a woman, Delany Nash, who goes through a similar crucible and comes out a winner.
By contrast, my present day heroine, Liz, has a much easier time of it but she still has issues with a husband who complains about her working long hours while he also doesn't pick up any of the slack on the domestic front. Annabel Crabb's The Wife Drought inspired me there. I don't spell it out in black and white in The Wife's Tale but sharp observers will note that Liz's happy ending is predicated partly on the presence of domestic servants in the household!
Question: What did you find difficult about setting the book in 1780, London?
Christine Wells: It is always a challenge to write about a setting that is not your own back yard but when it is in a completely different time as well, it requires a lot of research and imagination. Even though I visited the places I wrote about, I still had to conjure the sights, sounds and smells of these places over 200 years ago. I use cartoons, paintings and engravings from the period to assist me but often it involves piecing together several snippets of written description from various contemporary sources. I have to say, though, that it is a challenge I love to tackle.
Question: And, what did you enjoy most about transporting readers back to 1780?
Christine Wells: 1780s England was so glamorous and grubby and ebullient. It was a time when people gathered together to discuss ideas"men were talking about liberty and some women began applying those general principles to the female gender. If you read Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, you will be shocked at how much of what she says still applies today. Women were getting involved in political campaigns at this time (although they were soon howled down for it and shamed into silence) and seemed to have more freedom of thought and speech than their sisters in later years were allowed. Once the French Revolution shocked England with its brutality, many of those burgeoning ideas were zealously stamped out and women were thrust firmly back into their place.
Question: What was the best thing about creating the character of Liz Jones?
Christine Wells: I love Liz. She is so energetic and decisive and imperfect. Being Australian, she has no patience for snobbery but she has a deep appreciation for tradition and beauty and in spite of herself, she falls in love with the grand estate of Seagrove and its people. I suppose the best thing about creating her was writing the lovely relationships she forged over the course of the novel and the close-knit community she brings together at Seagrove.
Question: How much of your previous career inspired workaholic Liz Jones?
Christine Wells: I am well-acquainted with having a demanding boss but I worked in a firm of solicitors, not in-house as Liz does, and I practised in a different field. Liz has an oddly egalitarian relationship with Nick, her boss, because they went to university together, whereas I had a wonderful mentor who could not be more different from Nick! However, I am intimately acquainted with the type of client or boss who expects absolute dedication to the point of being ridiculously inconsiderate. Like Liz, I was always a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I know it's weird but one of my best memories of my days as a lawyer was working on a deal literally all night, sharing pizza and beer around a big board room table with the rest of the team"and then the slightly hysterical triumph of finishing the job on time and celebrating like lunatics afterward.
Liz thinks she wants to earn a seat on the board of the company she works for. In THE WIFE'S TALE, she has to ask herself what will truly make her happy and fulfilled. In stepping away from legal work to write novels, I struggled with that question also. So much of our identities is tied up in our careers. However, I made the right decision. I get to have a vocation I love and spend a lot of time enjoying my children. I think Liz makes the right choice, too.
Interview by Brooke Hunter