Breach of Promise Legal Action in the Regency Era – How Common Was It? by Regina Jeffers

Breach of Promise Legal Action in the Regency Era – How Common Was It? by Regina Jeffers

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Miss Austen brings up the issue of “Breach of Promise Suits” as they apply to Lydia and Wickham. This exchange actually occurs after Darcy’s second proposal (chapter 60) when Elizabeth is asking Darcy when he fell in love with her:

“Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement.”

“But I was embarrassed.”

“And so was I.”

“You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner.”

“A man who had felt less, might.”

“How unlucky that you should have a reasonable answer to give, and that I should be so reasonable to admit it! But I wonder how long you would have gone on, if you had been left to yourself. I wonder when you would have spoken, if I had not asked you! My resolution of thanking you for your kindness to Lydia had certainly great effect. Too much, I am afraid; for what becomes of the moral, if our comfort springs from a breach of promise? for I ought not to have mentioned the subject. This will never do.”

A breach of promise suit could be pursued by both men and women during the Regency, and it may surprise some to learn, more men than women filed for compensation in the ecclesiastical courts. A “promise” to marry had long been looked upon by the church courts as a legal marriage. The promise = the marriage. By the 1600s, this practice became part of common law.

To constitute a breach a promise case in court there first had to be a valid betrothal. Among the aristocracy of the Regency era, one might find the engagement announcement in the newspapers, but NOT necessarily the wedding announcement, as you may have often read in some Regency era based book. That is because the betrothal was as good as a marriage in the minds of many of the time. But why did the couple not simply go their separate ways when they decided not to marry?

A female often found herself as “damaged goods” when the nuptials were called off. Although premarital sex was deeply frowned upon by society, as a whole, often an engaged couple would consider the betrothal as good as the marriage. If the engagement was broken after sexual intimacies, the “future bride” would be ruined. She could not go to another as anything less than a virgin. Therefore, she was unlikely to marry. Women of society depended upon a husband to take care of their financial course. If a woman did not marry, she would be a poor relation, depending on the kindness of a brother or a cousin to keep her.

A gentleman might file a suit if he had borrowed money against the dowry he was to receive when he married the lady. He was to become in control of the lady’s fortune once their vows were officially spoken. A break in the promise to marry would leave him at the whims of the moneylenders.

Neither the potential bride nor the groom were permitted to enter testimony during the court proceedings. The jury was to award the compensation based upon the actual costs incurred, the loss of reputation, the length of the engagement, and the defendant’s ability to pay, but often the awards were based on “other factors,” for example, the most entertaining barrister between the pair representing the plaintiff and the defendant. Jurors would likely award a woman as low as £50 and as high as several thousands, depending upon how comely her countenance might be or how badly she had suffered in the public’s eye. However, just going to court could add insult to injury. The proceedings were often posted in the newspapers.

Ginger Frost in her book Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England speaks to “the myth of breach of promise” in popular literature and culture:

Suits for breach of promise of marriage were well know to the public in Victorian England. From, at least, the 1830s, a variety of writers recognized the inherent humor and drama of the action and began to fictionalize the cases as they were then brought. The depictions of trials during the century gave a strangely uniform representation of the people who brought such litigation and the outcome of their conflicts. This interpretation built up an idealized myth of breach of promise, one which influenced the perception of the suit far more than actual cases did.

MDF eBook Cover 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 she will put a stop to her mother’s plans to marry off the eldest Bennet daughter to Mr. Collins, her father’s heir, but a man 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 askew.

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 he agrees to Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s suggestion for Darcy to 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” arrives 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 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 Chapter 18 of MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs, we hear Darcy’s take on his aunt’s insistence he marry his cousin Anne De Bourgh, although Anne left him waiting at the altar the first time they were to speak their vows.

“So this is the welcome I am to receive,” her ladyship harrumphed. “Your mother would be ashamed of you, Darcy.” She sat heavily in an armed chair.

Darcy remained standing beside his desk. He spoke in clipped tones. “I was considering something similar as to Lady Anne’s reaction to your poor manners, Aunt. I can guarantee George Darcy would never have tolerated your ordering his servants about, and neither will I. This is Pemberley, madam, not Rosings Park. I am the master here.”

His aunt snarled, “I see your insolence continues.”

“And I see you still think the world will bend to your whims,” he countered.

Rather than to fuel their standoff with more inflammatory accusations, Lady Catherine switched tactics, a devise he had observed her employ previously. Darcy had always thought her doing so was an intelligent means for a woman to earn agreement over business matters in a man’s world, but her diversion would not work on him. “Is that girl in this house?” she demanded.

Darcy propped a hip on the corner of his desk and attempted to appear casual when he responded, “I fear Georgiana is not at home at this time. My sister will be sorry to have missed your call.”

Lady Catherine’s chin rose in stubbornness. “So such is the way you wish to discuss this matter. Very well. Then I shall be more direct. Did you bring Miss Elizabeth Bennet to Pemberley when you left Matthew Allard’s estate in Scotland?”

Darcy schooled his features. Someone would pay dearly for sharing his business with Lady Catherine. “I am not in the habit of discussing my personal life with anyone, and you of all people should realize I am more a ‘Darcy’ than a ‘Fitzwilliam.’ Your line of questions will not win you my favor.”

“I see you mean to protect this upstart! Are you so enthralled with the woman’s arts and allurements you cannot see reason? If you fancy her, Darcy, then make her your mistress. Anne will ignore your indiscretions. I will instruct my daughter in the ways of men. Anne can be your wife while this strumpet can suffer your lust.”

His aunt’s description of aristocratic life sickened Darcy. “I have no intention of marrying Anne. You may beg. You may threaten. You may cajole. You may bargain. But I will never change my mind. I permitted you to use the memory of my dear mother to coerce me into agreeing to marry Anne, but Fate had other ideas. Anne was late, and I spoke my vows to another.”

“We both know those vows are not legal,” she drawled in warning tones.

Darcy had heard from his solicitor regarding those first vows exchanged with Elizabeth, and as expected, his first marriage to the woman had proved void. Mr. Jaffray had filed the papers to have the ceremony declared null. “Such knowledge does not change my resolve. I will not marry Anne.”

“Would you prefer I instruct Anne in suing Miss Bennet for criminal conversation?” she challenged.

“Although neither Anne nor I could officially testify in such a suit, the truth would win out. A skilled barrister can make certain all the facts are relayed to the judge. The lady in question could not have claimed my affections away from your daughter, for beyond a fondness between cousins, I never loved Anne.” He would not say Elizabeth Bennet held his heart in her delicate hands. “Moreover, as I did not hold the lady’s acquaintance until several hours after that morning at St. George, it would be impossible for her to draw me away with her arts and allurements. All such a suit would do would be to bring ruin upon Anne’s head and mar my family name. You would have your vengeance and little else to keep you warm in the winter. No man would ever claim Anne after such a public display, but I suppose that is what you wish. You wish Anne forever to remain under your control.”

“Anne’s dowry of thirty thousand pounds can cover any flaw you name,” Lady Catherine argued.

“Yes, I suppose her dowry and the promise of Rosings Park can conceal all but one of my cousin’s failings: that of possessing an overbearing and controlling mother. Only the most desperate of men would consider aligning his name with Sir Lewis’s daughter. You would turn over Anne’s future to a man of no principles. That fact should surprise me, but it does not,” he said in sad tones. “Such a man would run through every penny of Anne’s inheritance, leaving you and your daughter as Matlock’s poor relations. I suppose such must be my justice.”

“You think me so cold-hearted?” his aunt demanded. “Everything I do, I do for Anne.”

“You may tell yourself these lies,” Darcy cautioned, “but your family and soon society will recognize you as a bitter, vindictive woman.” He sighed heavily. “If you persist in this madness, I will sue Anne for breach of promise. Her fortune will be greatly reduced, for I will win my suit. There were at least two dozen witnesses who can swear to the fact she left me at the altar. If not for the false exchange of vows, I would have been long gone from the church by the time Anne arrived. You, too, would have been gone, likely looking for your wayward daughter to strangle her, as you attempted to do when she did arrive. Are you willing to tarnish your daughter’s name twice in the court of public notice? Poor Anne who has never had a Season. Who has never been permitted the freedom to form a friendship. Who is poorly educated beyond what her governess provided her. That Anne will be irretrievably ruined.” His tone held the warning of winter’s embrace. “I do not wish to see Anne suffer, but I will not permit you to injure an innocent just to puff up your consequence.”

“An innocent?” his aunt accused in her most implacable voice. “The woman traveled with you to Scotland where she passed herself off as Mrs. Darcy. You see, Mr. and Mrs. Allard were quite pleased to tell my man of your indiscretions. Allard was most displeased you withdrew your financial support of his latest venture.”

Allard’s financial future would be nonexistent when Darcy finished with the man. He would permit no one to bandy about Elizabeth’s name in a vile manner. “We could debate this matter all afternoon,” he announced as he stood. “I believe somewhere within your hard resolve you want what is best for Anne, and I am flattered you think me a suitable match for my cousin, but I wish to marry in affection, and my feelings for Anne are more brotherly than those of a potential husband.” A profound sadness crept into his tone when Darcy spoke of his cousin’s situation. He should have done more to assist Anne before things had reached this turning point. Like most in the family, he had thought all would change when Anne inherited Sir Lewis’s properties and fortune. He had never considered the fact Lady Catherine would do all she could to shove Anne out Rosings Park’s door in order to maintain control of all of Sir Lewis’s holdings. “Do you not wish something more for your daughter and your dearest sister’s only son than a marriage of convenience?”

“I wish to see Anne well settled,” she declared in undisguised contempt.

Darcy hesitated briefly before accepting the gauntlet. His aunt would force him to be ruthless. “Then you leave me no choice, madam. If you force me into marrying Anne, I will leave you with little more than a humble cottage and a pair of servants to tend you for the remainder of your days. Anne will be five and twenty in two months. I will postpone the wedding until your daughter inherits Rosings Park per Sir Lewis’s will. All of it will belong to her, and as the estate and the fortune are entailed upon the female line, when we marry, as Anne’s husband, I will have control of it all. I have no intention of bringing Anne to child, so all your manipulations will be for naught. As you say, I will take my lust elsewhere. At Anne’s death, I will sell Rosings Park and all it holds piece-by piece, until nothing remains of Sir Lewis De Bourgh’s legacy. All you hold most dear will be scattered among the households of those with the funds to purchase it. I will destroy everything you have ever loved: Rosings Park and Anne. And each day of your miserable life you will know I did these things in retribution for your foolish sense of consequence.” Needing to be away from his aunt, Darcy started for the door. “Good day, your ladyship. I will have Mr. Nathan see you out.” With that, he was gone, never looking back to view the look of astonishment upon his aunt’s features.

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12 Responses to Breach of Promise Legal Action in the Regency Era – How Common Was It? by Regina Jeffers

  1. I love this excerpt and this Darcy! I also love this book and will be rereading it soon. I’m so glad this breach of promise law isn’t in force nowadays, I broke off an engagement the year before I married! Just think, I may have been ruined and never have had my two beautiful children and four gorgeous grandsons 🙁

    • It is odd, Glynis, how life takes such turns. We think we have it all figured out, and God says, “Not yet.” I am glad you have had such joy in your life.

  2. Great excerpt! Very interesting post I often wondered about those things. Like what it meant when a woman was “ruined”.

    • Being “ruined” could be something as simple as being unchaperoned in a room, Cindie. It was a very strict society for women. Men wanted to make certain the woman was a virgin when they married, so he could be assured (or as assured as one can be in such matters) the child she carried was his.

  3. I’m amazed this used to be a law. Did the promise need to be made in front of witnesses, if not, I wonder how many people lied saying promise was made to try to force a marriage.

    • To the best of my knowledge (which I am always learning something new each day), the “promise” must be public knowledge, meaning, even if the proposal was made in private, (which, generally, meant the couple was in a room together specifically for that purpose and the others were standing outside the door to “listen in”) it was quickly shared with others. However, the nature of humans means not everyone followed the “rules.” I imagine some could lie and force a marriage.

  4. I had no idea. Seeing with fresh eyes, indeed. I loved this altercation between Darcy and his aunt. Awesome scene. OMG! I loved it. Way to go Darcy. He knew where to aim his arrow. He was on point to take her down where she would hurt the most. Not with Anne but with her desire to keep control of Rosings. What a man, what a scene. Whew! Thanks for sharing.

    • I love weaving these historical bits into the story, adding “color,” so to speak to the tale.

  5. Thank you for clarifying. I thought the breach of promise Elizabeth was referencing was either Lydia’s promise not to say Mr. Darcy was at her wedding or her own promise not to say she this found. Rather it was a promise between Wickham and Lydia. Good to know.

    • Is it not wonderful to read a text you love with new eyes. I was also surprised when I first learned this fact.

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