The Absent Husband; the words conjure up an 18th century adventure story where a married Casanova has abandoned his responsibilities and ended reliving the plot of Robinson Crusoe. In my last post I mentioned finding online an old book, The Lives and Portraits of Curious and Odd Characters. I was enthralled by one particular vignette, ‘Mr Howe, The Absent Husband’. I had to copy the article longhand into my Regency notebook. Later as I brushed my teeth for bed and made my hot water bottle (obviously not at the same time) I was still transfixed by this bizarre real story. Whoever the author of the original article, they manage to sound like Dr Watson writing up one of Sherlock Holmes’ unsolved cases. I shall transcribe my transcription and you’ll see what I mean. If you can think of a plausible reason WHY this man would do what he did that fits all the other facts…PLEASE share it…I beg you! (Most of the punctuation is original though I did add a few periods)
About the year 1706, I know, says Dr. King one Mr Howe a sensible well natured man, possessed of an estate of 700-800 pounds per annum; he married a young lady of good family, in the West of England; her maiden name was Mallet, she was agreeable in person and manners, and proved a very good wife. Seven or Eight years after they had been married, he rose one morning very early and told his wife he was obliged to go to the Tower to transact some particular business; the same day at noon the wife received a note from him in which he informed her that he was under the necessity of going to Holland, and should probably be absent three weeks or a month. He was absent for seventeen years; during which time she never heard from him or of him. The evening before he returned, whilst she was at supper and with some of her friends and relations, particularly one Dr Rose, a physician who had married her sister, a billet without any name subscribed, was delivered to her, in which the writer requested the favor of her to give him a meeting in the Birdcage Walk in St James’s Park. When she had read the billet, she tossed it to Dr Rose and laughing said, ‘You see brother, old as I am, I have a gallant.’ Rose, who perused the note with more attention declared it to be Mr Howe’s handwriting: this surprised all the company and so much affected Mrs Howe that she fainted away; however, she was soon recovered. When it was agreed that Dr Rose and his wife, with the other gentlemen and ladies who were at supper, should attend Mrs Howe the next evening to the Birdcage Walk. They had not been there more than five or six minutes when Mr Howe came to them, and after saluting his friends and embracing his wife, walked home with her and they lived in great harmony from that time until the day of his death. But the most curious part of my tale remains to be related.
When Howe left his wife, they lived in a house in Jermyn-street, near St James’s Church: he went no farther than to a little street in Westminster where he took a room, for which he paid 5/6 shillings a week, and changing his name, and disguising himself by wearing a black wig (for he was a fair man) he remained in this habitation during the whole time of his absence. He had two children by his wife when he departed from her, who were both living at that time; but they both died young in a few years after. However, during their lives, the second or third year after their father’s disappearance Mrs Howe was obliged to apply for an Act of Parliament to procure a proper settlement of her husband’s estate, and a provision for herself out of it during his absence, as it was uncertain whether he was alive or dead; this act he suffered to be solicted and passed and enjoyed the pleasure of reading the progress of it in the votes, in a little coffee-house near his lodging, which he frequented.
Upon his quiting his house and family in the manner I have mentioned, Mrs Howe at first imagined, as she could not conceive any other cause for such an abrupt elopement, that he had contracted a large debt unknown to her, and by that means involved himself in difficulties which he could not easily surmount; and for some days she lived in continual apprehension of demands from creditors, of seizures, executions etc. But nothing of this kind happened; on the contrary, he did not only leave his estate quite free and unencumbered, but he paid the bills of every tradesman with whom he had dealings and upon examining his papers in due time after he was gone, proper receipts and discharges were found from all person, whether tradesmen or others whith whom he had any manner of transactions or money concerns. Mrs Howe, after the death of her children, thought proper to lessen her family of servants and the expenses of her house keeping; and therefore removed from her house in Jermyn St to a small house in Brewer-street near Golden Square. Just over against her lived one Salt, a corn chandler.
About 10 years after Howe’s abdication, he contrived to make an aquaintance with Salt, and was at length in such a degree of intimacy with him, that he usually dined with him once or twice a week. From the room in which they ate it was not difficult to look into Mrs Howe’s dining room where she generally sat and received her company, and Salt who believed Howe a bachelor, frequently recommended his own wife to him as a suitable match. During the last seven years of this gentleman’s absence, he went every Sunday to St James’ church, and used to sit in Mr Salt’s seat, where he had a view of his wife but could not be easily seen by her. After he returned home he would never confess, even to his most intimate friends what was the real cause of such a singular conduct, apparently there was none, but whatever it was he was ashamed to own it. Dr Rose has often said to me that he believed his brother Howe would never have returned to his wife if the money which he took with him, which was supposed to have been 1000-2000pounds had not all been spent. (And yet I have seen him, after his return, addressing his wife in the language of a young bridegroom. And I have been assured, by some of his most intimate friends, that he treated her during the rest of their lives with the greatest kindness and affection) …he must have been a good economist, and frugal in his manner of living, otherwise his money would scarecley have held out, for I imagine he had his whole fortune by him – I mean what he carried away with him in money or bank-bills and daily took out of his bag, like the Spaniard in Gil Blas, what was sufficient for his expenses.
What do you think? What could be a plausible reason for a man to put his affairs in order and walk out of his life (which by all accounts was not unpleasant) only to go a few streets away where he changes his name and puts on a black wig to live in a room?
1)He might have left her for a lover, but if so why didn’t he move farther away where there would be less fear of being recognised? If he left with 1000-2000pounds (and that was a lot of money in 1706) and lived like a poor man; what did he spend all his money on? We know he drank coffee, but I doubt a single man could have drank that much coffee and lived. He either didn’t have that much money or he spent it on something.
2)Perhaps he’d been sleeping with prostitutes (they cost money) and perhaps he’d caught syphalis and left so his wife wouldn’t know he had to have the mercury cure? The murcury cure would have cost a lot of money, but given the 17 year absence he probably would have died from mercury poisoning before dying of syphalis. Clearly he was a fairly healthy man as he was recognised without difficulty by his wife after 17 years…many men after seventeen years could be anyone!
3)Perhaps he was depressed or had some sort of mental breakdown and couldn’t stomach another day of his life. Frankly, having known people who’ve suffered serious depression…by the time they realise they’re in the mire (and need to get out) they find it difficult to care about much at all. Someone with mental problems might run away, but would they bother to first methodically pay every single bill? They might…but I doubt it.
4)Perhaps he’d done something unlawful and was afraid of being found out and had to wait for someone to die before he would be safe?
5)Maybe he couldn’t stand children…maybe he was jealous of the attention his wife gave to the children and wanted to punish his wife with his absence but then the children died and he wanted to return but he found it difficult to work up the nerve? Very farfetched…he’d have to have been a jealous psycho…his wife would have been relieved at his going and probably would have refused to know him at his attempted returning!
6) Perhaps he was bored with his life and wanted a change…what a strange way to find change!
7)Perhaps he was a voyeur and got off on watching his wife knowing she thought he was dead.
8)Perhaps the reason is SO strange I couldn’t think of it in a thousand years!
We know after ten years he was watching his wife (several times a week if not more)…he schemed to become friends with this Mr Salt so he could see into his wife’s dining room and watch her while he pretended not to know her…he was going to church and sitting behind her…watching her every Sunday…for seven years… That is just so bizarre! He appears to have been torn between wanting to stay away and wanting to return.
His leaving was premeditated…he didn’t leave a single bill or tradesman unpaid. And when he returned he gave the appearance of a man in love with his wife…so why did he leave for seventeen years?
I need to know the story! Why do you think he did it?