Friday, December 2, 2011

Breach of Promise of Marriage

You can no longer pursue an action in the courts for 'Breach of Promise of Marriage' in Great Britain or in North America. Changing times and social mores have precluded the necessity for such legal action.

But in Regency times, such actions were brought against gentlemen who had slipped a little in honour--a word that held men to a very high standard.

I have come across two cases of Breach of Promise of Marriage reported in contemporary Regency journals. The first--Fitzgerald v. Hawkesworth--appeared in the Derby Mercury (a publication that commenced in 1732 and continued for more than 200 years) on the 31st of May, 1804:

The second court case--Hardenn v. Causton--comes from 1818 and was reported in the Annual Register of that year. The proceedings are rather lengthy so I have selected a few interesting portions to reproduce:

The plaintiff, who was represented to be a young lady of great personal attractions, singular amiability of disposition and possessing an accomplished and well-cultivated mind, is the daughter of a respectable tradesman residing at Hatfield, in this county; and the defendant is a gentleman of independent fortune, lately retired from the business of a printer, which he carried on in Finch-lane, Cornhill.

From 1809 to 1817, these two carried on a 'voluminous correspondence'. In one letter the defendant said "I will marry you as soon as circumstances will permit".

This intimacy continued down till May 1817, when the defendant wrote to the plaintiff, announcing that the best mode of terminating the anxious suspense which she had always expressed, was to break off the connexion, and think no more of matrimony;...declaring his own intention of breaking off the match.

The defendant was asked to 'consider again of his rash determination', but he did not respond to this suggestion and so action was taken by the lady. The court case, complete with jury, followed.

The Jury retired for about an hour, and on their return, found a verdict for the plaintiff. Damages, Four Thousand Pounds.

A substantial sum in penalty--but the defendant had inherited 10,000 pounds during the course of the legal case, and so was well able to pay for his freedom from the Promise of Marriage.

A woman's reputation was her pride, her joy, and her protection, in those fiercely patriarchal days. A broken engagement could damage that reputation beyond repair. It was necessary therefore that the legal system protect her from the consequences of a gentleman's dishonour, and obviously the system worked.

It's a romantic notion--Breach of Promise of Marriage--and many novelists have put it to good use. But it came down to brass--money--and saved many a woman from a penniless and harrowing future.

'Til next time,



Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks so much for reminding me of this great idea for a storyline, Lesley-Anne. I did use a damaged reputation in my last book, but not with breach of promise. I'm bookmarking this post for future reference.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I'm sorry that the reproduction of the one case is hard to read, but I find it well worth the effort. It is such an interesting idea, especially nowadays when no one seems to worry about their reputation :)

Julianne Donaldson said...

Interesting post! I hadn't given much thought of a breach of promise obstacle, although I suppose it was relevant in Sense and Sensibility. Great thoughts for future stories!

Marguerite Kaye said...

As in most aspects of the law, Scotland went its own way, and only abolished breach of promise formally in 1984. This statutory abolition was required because in Scots law a promise to marry was treated as a contract, which was deemed binding with only verbal proof and (I think) no need in some cases for witnesses to the actual promise if it could be proved that the couple behaved as if they believed they had a contract.

I'm ashamed I don't remember more detail, having studied law at Glasgow under the formidable Prof Walker who wrote all the books on the subject. Scotland also had very different rules about marriage too, until fairly recently, with cohabitation and repute being valid without a ceremony.

Thank you for this post, it was really interesting and I'm not the only one who's got ideas going on now because of it. I came across it courtesy of a tweet. Another first!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Your comments on Scots law are fascinating. I am aware that on many points Scottish law was/is different from English law. I steer away from the technicalities of inheritance and other legal issues in my writing as I simply don't have time to research the details as I would want to do if I was including them.

Thank you for visiting, Marguerite! It's a pleasure to meet you!