Promissory Estoppel as a Means to Marry in the Regency or Otherwise

Marriage by Estoppel

One of the possibilities I explored in researching my book, MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs was marriage by estoppel as a plot point. According to Investopedia, “Promissory estoppel is a legal principle that a promise is enforceable by law, even if made without formal consideration, when a promisor has made a promise to a promisee who then relies on that promise to his subsequent detriment. Promissory estoppel is intended to stop the promisor from arguing that an underlying promise that was made should be not be legally upheld or enforced. Promissory estoppel is a legal principle that a promise is enforceable by law, even if made without formal consideration, when a promisor has made a promise to a promisee who then relies on that promise to his subsequent detriment. Promissory estoppel is intended to stop the promisor from arguing that an underlying promise that was made should be not be legally upheld or enforced.” As you can readily imagine I was thinking of some sort of breach of promise suit, when our Mr. Darcy does not marry Anne De Bourgh as he had intended to do, but rather finds himself speaking his vows to a our “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.”

I was well aware of promissory estoppel being used in marriage issues in the United States, especially in common law marriages. For example, in Martin v. Coleman, 19 S.W.3d 757 (S.Ct Tn 2000), it states that our courts have recognized marriage by estoppel when parties have believed in the validity of their marriage and have evidenced that belief by cohabitation. [Rambeau, 212 S.W.2d at 361.] The doctrine of marriage by estoppel is applied in exceptional cases. It does not apply in cases where the parties knowingly live together in an unmarried state and are privileged to discontinue that relationship at will. [Crawford, 277 S.W.2d at 392.] And although England does recognize Promissory Estoppel, where the doctrine of promissory estoppel prevents one party from withdrawing a promise made to a second party if the latter has reasonably relied on that promise, most of the cases I found dealt with contractual law. I felt I was writing myself into a “legal” nightmare, so I abandoned the idea of promissory estoppel as part of my plot. Good old “Breach of Promise” took its place. We must remember the Regency is an era in which marriage is pretty much forever, and engagements meant you were just as good as married-—neither person can call off without damage to his or her reputation, but the lady had more leeway to back out. Even so, she still risks being labeled either a jilt if she makes a habit of this.

If you are interest, you may read more on Promissory Estoppel here: Promissory Estoppel

MDF eBook Cover Introducing MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs…

I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.

ELIZABETH BENNET is determined that she will put a stop to her mother’s plans to marry off the eldest Bennet daughter to Mr. Collins, the Longbourn heir, but a man that Mr. Bennet considers an annoying dimwit. Hence, Elizabeth disguises herself as Jane and repeats her vows to the supercilious rector as if she is her sister, thereby voiding the nuptials and saving Jane from a life of drudgery. Yet, even the “best laid plans” can often go awry.

FITZWILLIAM DARCY is desperate to find a woman who will assist him in leading his sister back to Society after Georgiana’s failed elopement with Darcy’s old enemy George Wickham. He is so desperate that he agrees to Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s suggestion that Darcy marry her ladyship’s “sickly” daughter Anne. Unfortunately, as he waits for his bride to join him at the altar, he realizes he has made a terrible error in judgement, but there is no means to right the wrong without ruining his cousin’s reputation. Yet, even as he weighs his options, the touch of “Anne’s” hand upon his sends an unusual “zing” of awareness shooting up Darcy’s arm. It is only when he realizes the “zing” has arrived at the hand of a stranger, who has disrupted his nuptials, that he breathes both a sigh of relief and a groan of frustration, for the question remains: Is Darcy’s marriage to the woman legal?

What if Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet met under different circumstances than those we know from Jane Austen’s classic tale: Circumstances that did not include the voices of vanity and pride and prejudice and doubt that we find in the original story? Their road to happily ever after may not, even then, be an easy one, but with the expectations of others removed from their relationship, can they learn to trust each other long enough to carve out a path to true happiness?

Enjoy this Excerpt from MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs…

“Mr. Darcy?” his butler said tentatively. “There is a gentleman below who requests a few minutes of your time.”

With a frown marking his brow, Darcy looked up from his book. “At this hour?” He wondered if his aunt had sent a magistrate for Miss Elizabeth. “Does the gentleman have a name, Thacker?”

“A Mr. Gardiner, sir.”

Not the magistrate, he thought, but someone to remove her from my protection, nevertheless. Miss Elizabeth’s family has come for her. The idea did not please Darcy half as much as it should, but it was only proper to speak to the man. He had set several barristers to work today in pursuit of whether he was married to the woman or not. One of the men mentioned the possibility of Darcy’s pursuing a Promissory Estoppel case where one person makes a promise to another, but there is no enforceable contract. However, Darcy had no desire to sue the woman for the promise to “love, honor, and obey.” He simply wished to know whether he needed to approach the church courts to void his marriage. “See him up, Thacker,” he instructed.

Within a few minutes, a well-dressed gentleman appeared in the open door. He presented Darcy a bow of respect. “Please pardon the lateness of my call, Mr. Darcy.”

Darcy’s bow was less formal. “I suspect I am aware of your purpose.” He gestured to a nearby chair. “Come join me. Would you care for a drink?”

“No, thank you, sir.”

Gardiner claimed the chair to which Darcy directed him. “That will be all, Thacker.” His butler bowed from the room, and Darcy resumed his seat. “You have come for Miss Elizabeth.”

Mr. Gardiner’s tense shoulders sagged in what appeared to be relief. “She is here? Thank our dearest Lord. When Elizabeth did not return to my office, I began to search for her. It was only by accident that I overheard a tale of how you and Lord Haverton had rescued a girl in the street. Did she step into the way of his lordship’s coach? I told Lizzy that her plan would prove dangerous.”

Ah, Mr. Gardiner is not aware of all that has occurred. “I fear your niece ran into the street when she noted my pursuit.”

“Your pursuit?” Gardiner’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Why would a man of your consequence chase after a young woman of little notice? Did our Lizzy offer you an offense?”

“Not unless one would consider her taking the place of my bride during my wedding an offense,” Darcy said in droll tones.

“But she was supposed to be at the wedding of her…” Gardiner’s words slid to a halt as the truth found root. “Oh, my…”

A hint of sympathy touched Darcy’s countenance. “Your niece appears to act before she thinks.”

Gardiner ruefully acknowledged, “You have no idea the half of it.” The gentleman smiled mirthlessly. “Elizabeth meant to disrupt the wedding of her sister to Mr. Bennet’s heir.”

“Mr. Collins?” A wry grimace twisted briefly at Darcy’s lips as Mr. Gardiner’s features again registered his surprise. “Miss Elizabeth has explained her purpose in preventing her sister’s marriage to my aunt’s rector.”

Gardiner’s tone was singularly ironic. “Your aunt is Lady Catherine De Bourgh?”

Darcy nodded his affirmation. “Needless to say, her ladyship was in attendance at my nuptials, as I was to marry her daughter.” The gentleman did not disguise his groan of despair as he buried his face in his hands. “Lady Catherine means to have Miss Elizabeth turned over to the magistrate once she learns of your niece’s whereabouts. Such is the reason I brought Miss Elizabeth here so a physician could attend her, and I could protect her from my aunt’s wrath. Moreover, it is important that I determine whether the vows we spoke are legal or not. Fraud must be in place prior to the nuptials. As Miss Elizabeth and I held no acquaintance until I called in upon her earlier today, fraud may not be applicable to annul the marriage.”

“But did not Elizabeth use her sister’s name in the exchange of vows? That was her intent in foiling Collins’s marriage.” Gardiner contested.

Darcy drawled with cold formality. “She said, ‘I, Elizabeth, take thee William.’ I am Fitzwilliam Darcy, but am known to family and close associates as William. Although we did not sign the registry, I am not certain whether a shortened name is grounds for annulment or to have the marriage declared void. When I spoke my vows, I did so to ‘Anne,’ my cousin.”

Gardiner shared in ironic tones, “Anne is one of Elizabeth’s middle names.” Studying Darcy carefully, the gentleman cleared his throat. “I am certain your legal advisors have already discussed this issue, the marriage is valid as long as those who marry by license marry whom they think they are marrying, no matter what names are used. Elizabeth should have objected to the joining when the vicar asked if she took you as her husband. The fact that she did not could indicate her intent to marry you or her intent to practice fraud. The church courts could rule either way. As to the signing of the register, it is commonplace practice in the church, and I know some bishops have issued warning to clergymen about keeping careful records, but it does not mean the register must be signed immediately after the ceremony. I know a gentleman, a client of mine, who signed the register more than a week following his nuptials, which were conducted by special license and at his betrothed’s home. The clergyman had to call upon the gentleman to secure the man’s signature.”

It was Darcy’s turn to know surprise. “I was unaware of your niece’s full given name, and as to the other information, I was aware of some, but not all of what you have shared.”

“What I do not understand is how Elizabeth appeared at your wedding. She was to be at All Saints at Kingston upon Thames. Where were your nuptials held?”

“A chapel at St. George, which is also near the Thames.”

“Admittedly, Lizzy knows little of London. Mr. Bennet despises the place and comes to Town only when necessary. She and Jane visit often, but not enough to understand the city’s diverse populations and the neighborhoods harboring each or how there are hundreds of churches with ‘Saint’ in their names.” He smiled sadly. “Why did she not hail a cab to return to my office?”

“Miss Elizabeth left her reticule at the church,” Darcy explained.

“But someone would have paid the fare,” the gentleman began in explanation, but halted his protest. “It does not signify to second-guess Elizabeth’s frightened state.” Gardiner sighed heavily. “What do you wish me to do with Elizabeth? It is you who my niece has offended.”

Darcy counted to ten before he responded. What he wished to do and what was proper were in sharp contrast. “Miss Elizabeth should not be moved this evening. Doctor Nott reset her shoulder, and she struck her head upon the paving stones when Haverton’s team knocked her down. Such an injury must be handled carefully. Moreover, your niece has expressed concern at having disappointed her mother’s aspirations. Miss Elizabeth believes her punishment could be extensive. I know from my cousin that Lady Catherine’s ire has yet to abate. If you are agreeable, I think it is best if Miss Elizabeth remain with me until she is well enough to face her accusers or until we have a definitive answer as to whether ours is a legal joining. The vicar did pronounce us man and wife.”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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16 Responses to Promissory Estoppel as a Means to Marry in the Regency or Otherwise

  1. Vesper says:

    Before Elizabeth started all this did she actually consider whetherJane would be content marrying Collins?

    • In the book, the Bennets have never met Mr. Collins. This book takes place between Georgiana’s attempt at elopement and Bingley’s taking of Netherfield.

  2. Thanks for the explanation, Regina! It was very interesting! Looking forward to reading your new book! Thank you for the giveaway! 😉

  3. Pam Hunter says:

    Wow, what a mess Elizabeth has created! I love it! I know all will turn out right in the end. Thanks for a chance to win a copy!

    • Although D & E are facing new challenges, they are facing them together, without the warnings from the Bingley sisters, Wickham, etc., to distort their path to happiness.

  4. Randi says:

    Quite a sticky wicket! Building trust in a marriage of strangers should be fraught with challenges…and fun to read! Thanks for the giveaway.

    • Do we ever truly know the person we are to marry, Randi? I have an ex who turned out to prefer young girls to his 30-something wife. People asked me, “Didn’t you know?”
      And my response was always, “If I had, do you think I would have married him?”

  5. Glenda M says:

    I love how complicated everything has become! Excellent excerpt, Regina!

    Again, thanks for the history lesson. I had never heard of Promissory Estoppel.

    • Contract law generally requires that a person receive consideration for making a promise or agreement. Legal consideration is a valuable asset that is exchanged between two parties to a contract at the time of a promise or agreement. Ordinarily, some form of consideration, either an exchange of money or a promise to refrain from some action, is required in order for a contract to be legally enforceable. However, in attempting to ensure justice or fairness, a court may enforce a promise even in the absence of any consideration, provided that the promise was reasonably relied on and that reliance on the promise resulted in a detriment to the promise.

      Read more: Promissory Estoppel
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  6. Danielle C says:

    Thanks for the link to more information about the Promisory Estoppel. WOW! Can you imagine something this going on today?

    Oh and I bought the book so no need to enter me into the giveaway! 🙂

    • I appreciate your continued patronage. It was kind of you to purchase the book.
      Promissory estoppel, as noted above, can get mixed up in common law marriages, Danielle.

  7. Regina, fascinating concept, though you might be right that it got too complicated to work into the plot. I’m sure the reason a man could not back out of an engagement, whereas a woman could, is that the woman probably suffered relatively greater harm with a breakup. Not only would there be financial matters involved, but she might also be considered “damaged goods” in a way a man would not.

  8. Lúthien84 says:

    I’m glad you took the ‘breach of promise’ route, Regina. I see that it is quite complicated to write about promissory estoppel in a story and make it easy for readers to understand.

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