How easy was it to break an engagement during the Regency Era? Who stood to win and who to lose in such an arrangement?
Only if a man uncovered a flaw in the morals of the lady to whom he proposed could he even consider calling off a marriage proposal. Once he spoke the words and the lady had accepted, there was no “take backs.” If the man left the woman standing at the altar as a no-show (another plot point I have used previously in Elizabeth Bennet Excellent Adventure), it was thought he had discovered something of her low character, generally, that she had known another intimately.
About the only means to “rethink” the situation was if the lady’s father and/or guardian could not come to an agreement regarding the marriage settlements with the man.
If it was a situation where the man simply could not go through with the ceremony because he loved another, the only thing to soften the blow to his original betrothed’s reputation was quickly to marry the woman he originally desire. And by “quickly” I mean, marry the woman he desired before the one he was engaged to learned she had been jilted at the altar. Unfortunately, the jilted bride did have the right to a breach of promise suit.
When the church courts no longer enforced betrothals as a “contract,” it became a matter of a man’s honor. The man could walk away from the arrangement with less damage to his reputation than could a woman.
“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 set aside for the rumors and gossip were much more tantalizing to repeat. More gossip and scandal stuck to female’s name than it did for the man, who was often expected to keep a mistress or have had several women’s names attached as possibilities to his; 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 the daughter 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 in or of discussing marriage with the women.
That is the bare bones of it–the woman generally paid the price unless the couple could successfully claim she felt they would not suit–however, how society reacted depended on the woman’s dowry and 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 term for a “loose, unchaste woman; harlot;” also “woman who gives hope then dashes it;” probably a contraction of jillet, gillet, from Middle English gille “lass, wench,”)
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 meant to go through with it; likewise a woman should not accept unless she was certain.
I used the idea of a breach of promise and a jilted bride and bridegroom in my tale MR. DARCYS 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?
In this excerpt from the end of Chapter 22 and the beginning of Chapter 23, you might see how a threat of a Breach of Promise suit plays out in MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs.
“Mr. Darcy?” He turned to find Elizabeth beside him. “Although Mrs. Bennet suggested one of the clock for your arrival at Longbourn, by the time Mr. Bingley greets the community, it will be near that time. I must assist my mother so I have asked Miss Darcy to walk back to the estate with me. Mr. Bennet’s coach could not hold eight. Jane, Mary and I walked to services this morning to leave room for the others. Your sister suggested that you may wish to join us. In that manner, Miss Bennet and my sister Mary can join Mr. Bingley and Mrs. Annesley in your coach, leaving only four for Mr. Bennet’s carriage. I am a very good walker, and Miss Darcy claims to be one also. I know you to be hardy enough for the mile to Longbourn.”
He bowed to them. “It would be my pleasure.”
Darcy took a moment to whisper the arrangements in Bingley’s ear before following Elizabeth to where her father stood watching them. When Elizabeth explained her need to speak to him and Georgiana alone, Mr. Bennet declared, “I do not like this sudden interruption in our day, Lizzy.”
“Papa,” she soothed. Darcy watched as Elizabeth reasoned with her father. “We knew we could not keep the rest of the world in ignorance of my daring. It cannot be long until Mr. Collins realizes Mr. Darcy’s identity. He will report Mr. Darcy’s presence in the neighborhood to Lady Catherine. It is imperative that Mr. Darcy and I discuss how best to proceed before Mr. Collins is made known of the facts. Your cousin dines with the Lucases this afternoon. Surely Sir William will have something to say of Mr. Bingley’s and Mr. Darcy’s sudden appearance at Netherfield.”
Mr. Bennet glared at Darcy. “I do not welcome having someone force my hand.”
“At least,” Darcy said in uncompromising tones, “you can be assured a lion will do all within his power to protect his pride.”
“A lion, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth asked as they turned their steps toward the road leading to Longbourn.
He chuckled as he assumed his place at her side. He thought to place her hand on his arm, but Elizabeth kept her hands clasped behind her as she strolled along, and so he accepted his role as her escort. “It is a better moniker that the lap dog your father determined Bingley to be.”
Elizabeth smiled widely, and he enjoyed viewing the happy thoughts upon her face. “It is good to know Mr. Bennet’s health has returned. There were many weeks when he made no witty comments.” She squinted up at Darcy. “A lap dog is major step up from what my father calls Mr. Collins, when he thinks no one is listening. Mr. Bennet has been especially caustic in his interactions with his cousin since your aunt’s rector proposed marriage to me.”
Darcy stumbled to a halt. “He did what?”
“Proposed,” Elizabeth said with a teasing lift of her brow. “You understand, do you not, Mr. Darcy. Proposals lead to nuptials which lead to “I, William, take thee, Elizabeth.” Her smile spread across her features when she noted his lack of humor. “Mr. Collins Christian name is ‘William.’”
Georgiana giggled, and both he and Elizabeth turned to stare at his sister as if they had forgotten she accompanied them. “Lady Catherine would have Miss Elizabeth arrested if Mr. Collins delivered Lizzy to Hunsford. It would not surprise me if that was not her purpose in permitting him to come to Hertfordshire.”
Darcy warned, “You should not speak so disparagingly of our aunt.”
“Should I lie?” his sister questioned.
Elizabeth caught Georgiana’s hand. “I am honored that you meant to defend me with your speech, but I believe your brother does not wish you only to look at a person’s negative qualities. Is that not correct, Mr. Darcy?”
“Elizabeth speaks sense,” he said, but he made no further comment, for his mind could not release the idea of another man taking Elizabeth to his bed. The idea was intolerable to him!
“Moreover,” Elizabeth said on a rush when Darcy remained silent, “I refused Mr. Collins, and he is now engaged to my friend, Charlotte Lucas. If her ladyship meant to employ Mr. Collins deviously, he would not have turned his attentions so readily from me to Miss Lucas. He has written to Lady Catherine to ask for her ladyship’s approval, but to the best of my knowledge, your aunt is not in Kent.”
Georgiana looked to him. “Do you think her ladyship learned something of Anne’s presence in Scotland?”
Darcy’s expression tightened. “I pray not, but it would take little effort for our aunt to discover that Anne and Lady Lindale traveled to the Fitzwilliam property in Scotland. A few coins to a servant would bring her the necessary information. Lady Catherine thought to bring a criminal conversation suit against you,” he told Elizabeth. “But such would be Anne’s dominion, not our aunt’s, for my cousin is well past her majority. Mayhap her ladyship means to force Anne to pursue a breach of promise suit against me. Both would require Anne’s cooperation.”
“Crim…criminal conversation?” Elizabeth stammered. “That would mean she would charge that an affair occurred between us. A public accounting of our relationship would be spread in every newspaper in the land.”
Darcy did not think a judge would accept such a case, for the evidence was too sparse, but he would not guarantee that his aunt was not vindictive enough to pursue a public chastisement for his stubbornness. “I will not permit her ladyship to torment you. If she persists, I will bring a breach of promise suit against Anne. She was the one who left me at the altar. I will claim a large portion of Anne’s inheritance if that be the case.”
Tears pooled in Elizabeth’s eyes. “But your cousin is not at fault in this matter. I am. You may say you would have left the church before Miss De Bourgh appeared, but I know your nature, Mr. Darcy. You would have waited to learn of your cousin’s fate. If you bring a breach of promise suit against Miss De Bourgh, she will be termed a jilt. Her reputation will be more problematic than mine. Surely there must be another means from this debacle.”
“There is,” he said. “Marry me again. If we marry quickly, Anne will not be marked by negative gossip—just a bit of sympathy.”
Great post. It has been many years since I read this one. You put me in the mood for a reread!
Funny you say so. I reread it after completing the post.