Breach of promise

Breach of promise is a former tort in English law.

From at least medieval times until the early 20th century, a man's promise of engagement to marry a woman was considered, in many jurisdictions, a legally binding contract. If the man were to subsequently change his mind, he would be said to be in "breach" of this promise and subject to litigation for damages.

The converse of this was seldom true; the concept that "it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind" had at least some basis in law (though a woman might pay a high social price for exercising this privilege, as explained below) - and unless an actual dowry of money or property had changed hands, a man was unlikely to recover in a "breach of promise" suit against a woman, were he even to be allowed to file one (although there were certainly exceptions to this).

Changing social mores have led to the decline of this sort of action. Most jurisdictions, at least in the English-speaking, common law world, have become increasingly reluctant to intervene in cases of personal relationships not involving the welfare of children or actual violence. Many have repealed all laws regarding such eventualities; whereas in others the statute allowing such an action may technically remain on the books but the action has become very rare and unlikely to be pursued with any probability of success.

Some of the original theory behind this tort was based on the idea that a woman would be more likely to give up her virginity to a man if she had his promise to marry her; if he subsequently refused marriage it was considered that this lack of virginity would make her future search for a suitable mate more difficult or even impossible.

However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main factors were compensation for the denial of the woman's expectations of becoming "established" in a household (supported by her husband's wealth), and/or possible damage to her reputation - since there were a number of ways that the reputation of a young never-married woman of the "genteel" classes could be damaged by a broken engagement, or an apparent period of intimacy which did not end in a publicly-announced engagement, even if few people seriously thought that she had lost her virginity. She might be viewed as having broken the code of maidenly modesty of the period by imprudently offering up her affections without having had a firm assurance of future marriage. This is discussed in a passage from the 1801 novel Belinda by Maria Edgeworth, where an older woman is urging Miss Belinda Portman to give a suitor more time to attach her affections, though Belinda is worried that even by just passively accepting his attentions for a certain time, she might find herself "entangled, so as not to be able to retract", even "if it should not be in my power to love him at last":

"...after a certain time -- after the world suspects that two people are engaged to each other, it is scarcely possible for the woman to recede: when they come within a certain distance, they are pressed to unite, by the irresistible force of external circumstances. A woman is too often reduced to this dilemma: either she must marry a man she does not love, or she must be blamed by the world -- either she must sacrifice a portion of her reputation, or the whole of her happiness. ... A young woman is not in this respect allowed sufficient time for freedom of deliberation."

Breach-of-promise actions were part of the standard stock-in-trade of comic writers of the period (such as Charles Dickens in his Pickwick Papers, or Gilbert and Sullivan in Trial by Jury), but most middle- and upper-class families were reluctant to use them except in rather extreme circumstances (such as when a daughter became pregnant and the man refused to marry her), since they led to wide publicity being given to a scrutiny of intimate personal concerns, something which was strongly repugnant to the family feeling of the period (especially where young women were concerned).

See also

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