For much of history, women were property. Their greatest expectation was to marry well and pop out a couple of babies (preferably boys)
So when a man promised to marry a woman, it was serious business.
Wedding planning wasn’t just a hassle like it is today. It was the starting gun for a woman’s entire world changing. Working women quit their jobs in preparation for married life (losing any source of independent income), sacrifices were made as she stepped away from her family and into her new life as wife. Illegitimate children would even occasionally spring up (because most people in the past didn’t actually wait until marriage…)
So, if after all of that, a groom changed his mind and jilted his betrothed, she was left well and truly screwed!
Depending on how well off the jilted woman was to begin with (both in terms of society and finances) a woman could not only be left disgraced but in mountains of debt. Her future prospects lying in tatters.
So what could women do when their groom bolted and suddenly they were left with no future prospects and no cash (meaning they couldn’t just stop the clocks and spend the rest of their days living in lavish Victorian gothic eleganza, a la Miss Havisham?
Girl, you know the answer….You lawyer up!
Let me introduce you to, A Breach of Promise. It’s a handy legal loophole that allowed a person to recoup losses sustained through a failed engagement
A jilted lover could take their former spouse to court and sue for both emotional and finical 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 £1000 (Roughly £8000-£80,000 in today’s money)
Suddenly jilted women didn’t have to be a victim 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 scarlett letter looming.
BUT before you crack out the prosseco, 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 (along with, you know, generally avoiding jilting people)
But if you were a special kind of dickey 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 walked away with a pitiful £20, after it was claimed her fiancés parents were too appalled with her ‘pock marked’ 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, with Susannah 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, the cases regular comedy fodder, especially in literature (probably most famous is Charles Dickens, Pickworth 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 what had once counted as the evidence, was now starting to look flimsy as!
With evidence that didn’t stand up under any scrutiny, the trials often amounted to little more than he said she said. And so there was suddenly a boom in women leaving these court cases branded fraudulent liars.
Were some playing the system to make a quick buck? For 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 its used as a plot device in Hard Days Night, when Pauls grandad is accused of breach of promise by a much younger girl – ick)
Now UK law doesn’t recognise engagement as a legal contract. With Breach of Promise 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 (absolute bargain on kindle, btw)