For much of history, women’s greatest expectation was to marry well and pop out a couple of well-bred babies (preferably boys).
So, when a man promised to marry a woman, it was serious business. Weddings weren’t just planned, but whole were lives turned around. Working women quit their jobs in preparation for married life (losing any source of independent income), and illegitimate children occasionally sprang up.
After all that, a groom changing his mind left the bride, well, screwed. Depending on how well off she was to begin with (both in terms of society and finances), a woman could not only be left disgraced but in mountains of debt, with her future prospects in tatters.
So what happens when your groom bolts and you find yourself with no future but sans the ability to stop the clocks and spend the rest of your days draped in gothic wedding eleganza, a la Miss Havisham? You lawyer up!
A Breach of Promise was a handy legal loophole that allowed both men and women alike to recoup losses sustained through a failed engagement. A jilted lover could take their former fiancé to court and sue for both emotional and financial damages.
Cases of a Breach of Promise started to become popular around 1650, but pretty quickly, the number of men suing former girlfriends dropped off, with society feeling that taking the “weaker sex” to court was just plain ungentlemanly.
Sadly for their male counterparts, jilted women didn’t have any such qualms, and by the Victorian era, the number of breach of promise cases had skyrocketed.
Nine out of ten cases of breach of promise were won, with average payouts ranging from £100 to £1,000 (Roughly £8,000-£80,000 in today’s money).
Suddenly, jilted women didn’t have to be victims for the rest of their lives. They could reclaim not only their hard-earned cash but also their reputations. Now, illegitimate children could be properly raised, jobs could be regained, and if they wanted, women could start again in a new relationship without a huge scarlet letter looming over them.
But, before you crack out the bunting, let me quickly rain on this parade—see, men had grown wise to the Breach of Promise and were working on ways to get out of a costly trial.
Now, the most obvious way to avoid a scandalous breach of promise court case would be to settle out of court (or to generally avoid jilting people).
But if you were a special kind of dicky Victorian gent, there were ways to make sure you were part of the 10% that had their breach of promise case thrown out of court:
1. Claim that your intended was prone to lude conduct: This could be anything from bad language to reading racy books. Anne Blakely saw her breach of promise case thrown out after it was shown she had not only read but also owned a copy of — then infamously scandalous — Fanny Hill (gasp).
2. She’s just too ugly to marry: Charlotte Emms only walked away with a pitiful £20 after it was claimed that her fiancé’s parents were too appalled by her “pockmarked” face to allow their son to marry her. Nice.
3. Just straight-up call her a liar: in 1875, Susannah O’Sullivan sought breach of promise, claiming her then-fiancé had plied her with wine and assaulted her. But after her asshat ex stood in court and branded Susannah’s claims a lie, the case was promptly chucked out of court and Susannah was branded “laughable” by the press.
By the 1900s, rates of Breach of Promise cases were dropping rapidly.
The whole thing was now seen as farcical, and the cases were regular comedy fodder, especially in the literature (probably most famous is Charles Dickens’ the Pickwick Papers).
Breach of Promise wasn’t doing great outside of the realms of fiction either. The media circus the cases caused meant that any plaintiff would see their entire life thrown under a microscope for public analysis; unsurprisingly, not many women were game for going through that ordeal, no matter their need.
Plus, there was the very vital fact that the what counted as the evidence holding both sides of the case together was now starting to become flimsy as f. With evidence that often amounted to little more than he said she said, there was suddenly a whole crop of women being branded fraudulent liars.
Were some playing the system to make a quick buck? Sure! But most were like Susannah O’Sullivan, desperate to turn around their shitty situation.
By the mid-1900s, breach of promise had pretty much disappeared, though it still popped up for comedic effect (notably it’s used as a plot device in the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, when Paul’s grandad is accused of breach of promise by a much younger girl—ick).
Now, UK law doesn’t recognize engagement as a legal contract, and Breach of Promise is now nothing more than a relic, more than often used to showcase the ridiculous whimsy of the past.
This was interesting, where can I find out more? I’d suggest checking out Denise Bates’ book, Breach of Promise to Marry: A History of How Jilted Brides Settled Scores.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
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