I am happy to welcome Maria Grace back to Outtakes as she introduces her latest release, The Trouble to Check Her, where Lydia Bennet must face the consequences of running off with Mr. Wickham. Here, Grace tells us how a jilted bride could make her former fiancé pay, literally.—Kim
By Maria Grace
Even after the decline of arranged marriage after 1780, marriage still remained largely a business transaction. Even the promise to marry was considered an enforceable contract, with a breach of promise suit a possible consequence of a broken engagement.
As early as the 15th century, English ecclesiastical courts equated a promise to marry with a legal marriage. By the 1600s, this became part of common law; a contract claim one party could make upon another in civil court suits. (And you thought this was just the stuff of modern daytime television!)
To succeed in such a suit, the plaintiff, usually a woman, had to prove a promise to marry (or in some cases, the clear intention to offer such a promise), that the defendant breached the promise (or the implied promise to promise), and that the plaintiff suffered injury due to the broken promise (or failure to make the implied promise). Don’t think about it too hard, it’ll make your head hurt.
Breach of Promise Claims
A breach of promise suit required a valid betrothal. Promises to marry when both parties were below the age of consent were not valid. Similarly, promises to marry made when one was already married (as in I’ll marry you if/when my current spouse dies—how romantic) or between those who could not legally marry were not enforceable.
If significant and material facts were discovered that could have influenced the agreement, then betrothal could be dissolved without penalty. So issues like misrepresentation of one’s financial state, character, or mental or physical capacity presented valid reasons to end an engagement.
If a betrothal was valid, a breach of promise claim could be presented in court.
Why were such claims filed when it seems like it would be far easier, less painful, and less embarrassing for a couple to simply go their separate ways? When a promise to marry was broken, the rejected party, usually female, suffered both social and economic losses.
Socially, an engaged couple was expected to act like an engaged couple. Though it seems unfair in modern eyes, the acceptable behaviors she may have shared with her betrothed, would leave her reputation damaged if he left her. Moreover, though premarital sex was officially frowned upon, it was known that a woman was much more likely to give up her virginity under a promise to marry. But if that promise was not kept, her future search for a husband would be significantly hampered for having broken the code of maidenly modesty.
The loss of reputation translated to serious economic losses, since middle and upper class women did not work outside the home and required a household supported by a husband’s wealth. A woman with a tarnished reputation was unlikely to marry well.
Perhaps as a result, a woman was far more likely to win a breach of promise claim than lose one. Middle-class ladies were generally able to obtained larger damage awards than working women, though cases varied greatly. About half of women winning damages obtained £50-£200. (For reference, middle class family of four could live comfortably on £250 a year.)
While these awards could indeed offer assistance to wronged plaintiffs, the system was also ripe for abuse. Jurors were often unduly sympathetic toward jilted women, especially when they were attractive or portrayed as particularly virtuous. Damage awards could easily be swayed by such sympathies, making false claims very tempting. All this sounds so much like modern reality television, doesn’t it?
The more things change, the more they stay the same!
Images in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
About The Trouble to Check Her
Lydia Bennet faces the music…
Running off with Mr. Wickham was a great joke—until everything turned arsey-varsey. That spoilsport Mr. Darcy caught them and packed Lydia off to a hideous boarding school for girls who had lost their virtue.
It would improve her character, he said.
Ridiculous, she said.
Mrs. Drummond, the school’s headmistress, has shocking expectations for the girls. They must share rooms, do chores, attend lessons, and engage in charitable work, no matter how well born they might be. She even forces them to wear mobcaps! Refusal could lead to finding themselves at the receiving end of Mrs. Drummond’s cane—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones could be dismissed and found a position … as a menial servant.
Everything and everyone at the school is uniformly horrid. Lydia hates them all, except possibly the music master, Mr. Amberson, who seems to have the oddest ideas about her. He might just understand her better than she understands herself.
Can she find a way to live up to his strange expectations, or will she spend the rest of her life as a scullery maid?
About Maria Grace
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was 10 years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in educational psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.
She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six new novels in the works, attended seven period balls, sewn eight Regency era costumes, shared her life with nine cats through the years, and published her 10th book last year.
She can be contacted at author.MariaGrace@gmail.com. You can also connect with her at:
- Random Bits of Fascination
- Austen Variations
- English Historical Fiction Authors