Broken Engagements in the Regency Period

34113799-concept-of-a-lost-relationship-with-a-letter-a-red-rose-and-an-engagement-ring-left-on-a-table-Stock-Photo A popular plot in Regency era romances is the broken engagement, but what was the truth of the situation?

Unless he suddenly uncovered a flaw in the morals of he lady, once a man proposed to a woman, he was expected to go through with it. Sometimes engagements were called off when the fathers and/or guardians could not agree on the settlements with the gentleman. However, if a man jilted the one to whom he had proposed, it was thought that he found out something to speak to her low character, particularly that she had known another intimately.

The only means to save the female’s reputation was for the gentleman to marry another quickly, so quickly that the betrothed female sometimes did not even know she was jilted. The jilted person, if of age, had the right to sue for breach of promise. Because betrothals and engagements were no longer enforced by the church, they were considered to rest on a man’s honor. The man could more easily jilt a female than the girl could jilt him.

“Breach of promise of marriage suits originated in the ecclesiastical courts; the Hardwicke Marriage Act, however, invalidated betrothals and forced jilted lovers to use the common law courts for redress. Lower-middle and upper-working class couples had a definite set of courtship rituals, based on their desire for respectability and their simultaneous lack of economic security. Though most couples wanted to find the companionate ideal, they also needed to have good homemakers (for men) and solid providers (for women). They indulged in middle-class sentimentality in their letters and poetry, yet their courting was less formal and unsupervised. This mixture of needs was also reflected in their motives for separating, a combination of ideological, structural and personal difficulties. There was a sustained argument over breach of promise in the later Victorian period, which showed the tensions between individualism and companionate marriage in its culture. The legal community was divided over the desirability of the suit; most judges supported it and most lawyers did not. It also divided the populace, since the lower classes were favorable, but the upper classes abhorred it. Women, too, were unable to agree, breach of promise protected them, but it also placed them in a special category that was inherently unequal. Ironically, the plaintiffs, by appealing to the patriarchal courts, proved to be strong feminists, since they refused to be passive in the face of victimization. This showed great determination, since most of the commentators on the action were hostile; breach of promise cases in fiction, in fact, were overwhelmingly negative, legitimizing the upper-class disdain for the suit and ignoring its usefulness for poorer women.” [Rice University Digital Scholarship Archives; Promises broken: Breach of promise of marriage in England and Wales, 1753-1970, Ginger Suzanne Frost, 1991]

The couple would often try to come up with some excuse that showed that the woman simply changed her mind, and she and the man agreed to part amicably. However, the “tale” told was often overlooked for the rumors and gossip were much more tantalizing to repeat. More gossip and scandal stuck to female’s name; there was less blame attributed to the man unless the girl’s family entered into a counter attack to shift the blame to him or to make it appear she broke the engagement. The appeal to honor was very strong. Both the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron married women they didn’t want because they had once made the mistake of showing interest or of discussing marriage with the women.

That is the bare bones of it: the woman generally paid the price unless they could successfully claim she felt they wouldn’t suit; however, how society reacted depended on the woman’s dowry, her family position. [This held true for the gentleman, as well.] If a great heiress was jilted people would be careful not to blame her too much because they would want a chance for a son or nephew to marry her. A rich peer or a rich young man was always a good catch, and a father or guardian of the next young lady to catch his eye would make certain he made it to the altar.

A woman could cry off, but she had to be wary of being labeled a “jilt.”  (1670s, “loose, unchaste woman; harlot;” also “woman who gives hope then dashes it;” probably a contraction of jillet, gillet, from Middle English gille “lass, wench,”)

cover.indd A man who promised marriage and cried off could be sued for breach of promise, particularly if the promise was in writing. To win such a suit, one had to prove the promise and damages. Or he might just be labeled as bad ton. There were a few cases of men winning breach of promise suits. A good reference for those cases is Broken Engagements: The Action for Breach of Promise of Marriage and the Feminine Ideal, 1800–1940, by Saskia Lettmaier; Ginger Frost; Victorian Studies, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Autumn 2011), pp. 151-153, Indiana University Press. Not everyone would sue for breach of promise for it involved there being damages (to the daughter, leaving her unable to marry), so upper class might be inclined to sweep the whole thing aside as soon as possible so the social stain might be forgotten. Either way, it was poor form. A gentleman was not to propose unless he to go through with it; likewise a woman should not accept unless she was certain. 

This is an excerpt from Elizabeth Bennet’s Excellent Adventure in which Mr. Darcy has been detained by footpads in London and does not make it to Hertfordshire to marry Elizabeth. See how the scenario of a broken engagement plays out in the story: 

“Where is the dastard?” Elizabeth heard her father demand of Colonel Fitzwilliam.

The colonel and Miss Darcy had arrived at the church without the groom the entire neighborhood expected. Ironically, Elizabeth knew Mr. Darcy had not returned to Hertfordshire. Even without being told, her heart said she would know disappointment. Nevertheless, Elizabeth had permitted her mother and the others to offer a hundred reasons for Mr. Darcy’s absence. How could she tell them she had destroyed her happiness with a quarrelsome tongue?

“Perhaps Mr. Darcy took ill.”

“Mayhap there was a carriage accident.”

“More likely, the gentleman changed his mind, just as I predicted,” Mrs. Connor declared in triumph.

Miss Darcy caught Elizabeth’s hand, offering the girl’s support. “You must know how dearly William cares for you,” the girl pleaded.

Elizabeth did not wish to be cruel to Mr. Darcy’s sister, but her pride smacked of the betrayal. “Mr. Darcy cared more for his railroad than his intended,” she snapped.

Fighting back tears, Elizabeth spoke privately to her father. “Please, sir, may we not return to Longbourn? I believe two hours is long enough to wait for Mr. Darcy.”

Thankfully, her father recognized Elizabeth’s fragile composure. As they made their exit to his waiting coach, Mr. Bennet discreetly requested that Mr. Bingley see the remainder of the Bennet family home. Inside the carriage, her father gathered Elizabeth in his arms to rock her to and fro.

“My dearest girl,” Mr. Bennet whispered as Elizabeth permitted her tears free rein. “I will not tolerate this insult, not to my darling Lizzy.”

“No!” Elizabeth sobbed. “Mr. Darcy is not worth our notice. Please say you will do nothing foolish. I could not bear it.”

“I am but a country squire,” her father declared, “but I am not without connections.”

“Please, Papa. I simply wish to forget this slight. Do not exacerbate it.” Elizabeth buried her face in her father’s cravat. “It was my fault for aspiring to a match above my sphere. Lady Catherine said as much. Mr. Darcy likely realized the censure he would claim with our joining.”

Mr. Bennet took umbrage with Elizabeth’s remarks. “I will not have you speak so, Lizzy. Any man would earn a brilliant match by claiming you.”

Elizabeth attempted to control her tears. She swiped hard at her cheeks. “Permit me my misery this day,” she said through a choking sob. “I promise to know a wiser choice on the morrow.”

“As you wish, Lizzy.” Her father gathered her closer to caress Elizabeth’s back. It was comforting to know his love. “I will forbid all from entering your room until you are prepared to face them. Take as long as you like. One day or a whole month of days. When you decide how you wish to proceed, send for me, and we will deal with this together. Even if you do not wish to force the marriage, I believe Mr. Darcy’s name will know the shame of a breech of promise action.”

Elizabeth did not argue with her father regarding the futility of such legal actions against a man of Mr. Darcy’s stature. Instead, when they reached Longbourn, she hurried to her room to bury her tears in her bed pillow. She noted the worried look from Mr. and Mrs. Hill as she scurried past them. The servants and all her neighbors would know Mr. Darcy had abandoned her at the altar.

Inside the room, Elizabeth kicked off her slippers, sending them flying brought her a momentary surcease. She wished there was something else she could throw, or better yet, punch in a most unladylike manner. The thought of slapping Mr. Darcy’s too masculine cheek would be quite satisfying.

In frustration, Elizabeth ripped at the lace of her ivory wedding dress. She should summon a maid to assist her, but it did her well to hear seams rip and to have lace sleeves come loose in her hands.

With more anger than she knew possible, Elizabeth tore the gown from her body, strip by silken strip. She would never wear the dratted dress again, and seeing it turned to rags brought her the only delight this day could hold for her. Standing at last in nothing more than her shift, Elizabeth gathered the ribbon and pieces of cloth in an untidy heap and unceremoniously dumped them out the window. The realization brought another round of tears to her eyes, injustice rushing to her lips. It was bad enough to know Mr. Darcy only agreed to their marriage to save her from the damage of Maria Lucas’s gossip, but to be so publicly shamed was beyond Elizabeth’s comprehension.

“Maria’s tale would be preferable to what occurred today,” she sobbed aloud. “I might have convinced the girl to ignore the obvious, but now everyone knows the man’s disdain for the Bennets.”


A soft knock at the door caught Elizabeth’s attention: It was Jane.

“Are you…? Is there anything…?”

“No, Jane,” Elizabeth called before biting down hard on her lip to keep from lashing out at her sister.

Jane would soon know the happiness of joining with Mr. Bingley. How often had they hid in the copse to speak of the men they would love?

“I am well,” Elizabeth managed.

“Are you certain?” came her sister’s voice of concern.

Anger returned. “Why should I not be well?” she said with ill temper. “It was the pinnacle of my day to stand before friends and foes and permit them to witness my public humiliation.” She paused, seeking control. “Just leave me be, Jane. I know you mean well, but…”

“As you wish,” Jane said in what sounded of tears.

Silence followed her sister’s departure. Elizabeth could hear the buzz of voices below. She hoped her father could keep everyone away. She imagined the chaos as Mrs. Bennet hustled servants to remove the wedding breakfast.

“The breakfast,” she murmured through a new round of tears. Curling in a ball upon the bed, Elizabeth covered her face. “The breakfast where Mr. Darcy and I were to accept the congratulations of all our dear family and friends.”

EBEZ copy 2Elizabeth Bennet’s Excellent Adventure: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary 

The Last Man in the World She Wishes to Marry is the One Man Who Owns Her Heart!

ELIZABETH BENNET adamantly refused Fitzwilliam Darcy’s proposal, but when Maria Lucas discovers the letter Darcy offers Elizabeth in explanation of his actions, Elizabeth must swallow her objections in order to save her reputation. She follows Darcy to London and pleads for the gentleman to renew his proposal. Yet, even as she does so, Elizabeth knows not what she fears most: being Mr. Darcy’s wife or the revenge he might consider for her earlier rebuke.

FITZWILLIAM DARCY would prefer that Elizabeth Bennet held him in affection, but he reasons that even if she does not, having Elizabeth at his side is far better than claiming another to wife. However, when a case of mistaken identity causes Darcy not to show at his wedding ceremony, he finds himself in a desperate search for his wayward bride-to-be.

Elizabeth, realizing Society will label her as “undesirable” after being abandoned at the altar, sets out on an adventure to mark her future days as the spinster aunt to her sisters’ children. However, Darcy means to locate her and to convince Elizabeth that his affections are true, and a second chance will prove him the “song that sets her heart strumming.”

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About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Church of England, Georgian England, Georgian Era, Great Britain, Living in the Regency, Living in the UK, marriage, marriage customs, romance and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Broken Engagements in the Regency Period

  1. Regina says:

    Excellent piece on jilting, breach of promise, etc with a perfect tie in to Elizabeth’s “adventure” Really enjoyed both!

  2. MaryAnn Nagy says:

    Great article and it is the woman so many times that suffers as well as her family. I remember reading the novel where Darcy doesn’t show up for the wedding and Elizabeth torn her wedding gown.
    Thanks again for doing so much research!

    • There was a question from another author about students getting their history from historical fiction. A study cautioned that there were apparent errors in the historical fiction. That is why I attempt to get it right.

  3. Beatrice says:

    The priest who performed my parents’ wedding ceremony in England in 1934 was later defrocked for counselling an unhappily-engaged man to end his engagement. When a breach of promise suit went to court, the priest was defrocked. My dad used to joke that meant his own marriage was invalid; my mother was not amused.

    • I love this story, Beatrice. I was laughing before the “punch line.” That being said, I did not know about the “defrocking.” Interesting point.

  4. barbsilkstone says:

    Regina, Thank you! This was a very informative post. One really had to tread carefully in the Regency era and watch what words spilled from your lips.

    • Yeah. It always amazes students when I would explain how even caught alone with a girl could mean they were engaged. Nowadays, things like Lydia’s elopement would mean nothing in a world where some 30% of the population never marries. Then there is our own version of Gretna Green in the form of Las Vegas.

  5. Buturot says:

    Thank you for this info Regina, very interesting. Love to learn more about the Regency times. I was saddened with EB in this story (since I have the book, I know what had detained FD). No man nor woman should being jilted like this in the altar. I think it is cruel.

    • Chris, it is always surprising when we consider how folks in the past thought about such things. We here in NC are one of the few states who still have “criminal conversation” laws on the book. That is what we might think of alienation of affection. The crim con laws allow the “jilted” spouse to sue the person who stole away the married man or woman’s affection. That is why the late Elizabeth Edwards sued her husband’s (Sen. John Edwards) mistress in court.

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