Ginger S. Frost , Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian Englandfrom Chapter 1, "The Legal History of Breach of Promise," Chapter 2, "The Court of Public Theatre," Chapter 5, "Broken Engagements in Victorian England," and Chapter 6, "Premarital Sex in Victorian England" (1995)

Transcribed from pages 16-17, 25-26, 38-39, 80, 82, 84, 88-92, 98-100 and 116-119 of Ginger A. Frost's Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England. Published by University of Virginia Press, 1995.


"Because breach of promise evolved as part of the common law, the laws governing it in the nineteenth century were worked out through precedent. As Michael Grossberg has pointed out, breach of promise was 'a curious legal action, a peculiar combination of contract and tort.' Despite this fact, most writers agreed on the nature of the suit and the standard procedures for both the plaintiff and the defense. Indeed, by the Victorian period, the rules of bringing and defending a suit were almost a formula.

The engagement was considered a contract to marry and was legally binding on both parties. However, unlike most contracts, it could not be enforced because the civil courts would not coerce marriage, but the party breaking the contract was liable to damages. The contract had to be mutual and between parties competent to make legal contracts. . . . Of course, the man had to have made and the woman to have accepted a definite promise, but it was not necessary that all the terms of the betrothal should be settled at once. . . . The court also accepted the validity of conditional promises if the agreement was 'suitable.' For instance, a man could promise to marry when a business venture had ended, or a woman could agree to marry upon attaining a dowry. However, should the man or woman definitely repudiate the promise before the condition had been met, the jilted party could still sue. . . . Breach of promise was a personal action, and only the injured party was entitled to sue (not parents or guardians). A person under twenty-one could sue but not be sued for a promised made before his or her majority. Furthermore, the action ended with the death of either the defendant or the plaintiff. . . . The burden of proof was on the plaintiff, but because of the private nature of courtship and marriage, judges acccepted circumstantial evidence and hearsay. Proof of a proposal could be inferred from visits, 'walking out' together, stating intentions to third parties, wedding preparations, gifts, or the expectations of relatives and friends. The woman's acceptance could be inferred simply by her lack of objection to the offer, or by a number of other factors: her apparent attachment to the man, declarations of intent to marry either to him or to others in his presence, or distress at the subsequent rejection. However, mere courtship and politeness were not sufficient to prove an engagement" (16-17).

"The staging of breach-of-promise cases was . . . both theatrical and conservative, although in this case the conservatism was helpful to the women involved, making them the helpless, and ultimately redeemed, heroines in a melodrama. Indeed, those implicated in these actions recognized, at least implicitly, that the latter were dramas. Barristers for both sides frequently employed the language of theatre to make their points, quoting Skakespeare, Pickwick, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Furthermore, there was little doubt that the trials were enormously popular as entertainment in the assize towns. Case after case recorded that the courtroom was filled, often with a 'fair sprinkling of ladies.' The audience responded to the action before them as they would to a play, laughing at jokes; 'murmuring' at unexpected revelations; and applauding at the end. In one case the jurymen continually said 'Hear, hear!' as the plaintiff gave her evidence. Judges did not always like this aspect of the case, but there was little they could do" (25).

"Like putting on a large-scale theatrical production, suing for breach of promise in the nineteenth century was a long and complicated process. Much of the action in these cases followed a similar script, which got more familiar as use of the suit broadened in the late nineteenth century. That script closely resembled a domestic melodrama, with an innocent young woman as the victim of a scheming villain, high-flown discourse, and a triumphant final vindication in court. Melodrama as a theatrical form had its heyday in the early nineteenth century, just at the time that breach of promise was evolving into a woman's suit for punitive damages. The convergence of these two processes was probably not coincidental" (26).

"Probably most of the defendants paid at least part of the awards, and most winners felt some pleasure and relief. But these instances offer cautionary lessons: an award from a jury was not the same as money in the hand, nor did winning a case give women (or men) everything that they wanted. Large damages were better than nothing, but they did not provide the comfort and prestige of marriage. After the extensive trouble and expense of a trial in the High Court, both plaintiffs and defendants may have found themselves feeling empty, poorer, or even publicly humiliated. Still, female plaintiffs usually at least had the satisfaction of a friendly verdict. The reasons for women's success went beyond their ability to frame the trials in melodramatic terms. They also were able to convince jurists, who were often of the same class, of their peculiar difficulties in courtship and breaches, and of their hardship due to sexual misadventures. But most important, expectations for the masculine gender proved to be more onerous than those for the feminine one. Though seldom helpful to women in the criminal courts, the assumption of manly responsibility for providing, promise-keeping, and sexuality was a great asset to female plaintiffs in the civil tribunals" (38-39).

"Although most people in Victorian times assumed that success—a wedding—resulted from courtship almost automatically, possibly thousands of courtships per year failed, far more than made it to court in a breach-of-promise suit. The reasons for failure were complex, and those that eventually appeared in the legal records show difficulties closely related to the courtship rituals peculiar to the lower orders. These reasons fall into three areas. First, there was the vexed issue of class. Cross-class matings faced numerous problems; in addition, intra-class courtships ran into obstacles because of the delays and separations inherent in the lower middle and working classes (and a few middle-class couples as well). Second, the romance of courtship often conflicted with practical needs, while at the same time suffering from internal contradictions. Third, these structural obstacles were complicated by interpersonal factors, such as age, religion, and incompatability. Whatever the reason, many couples found the engagement to be a difficult and sometimes tragic time in their lives" (80).

"Class was not merely an economic affiliation but also a scale of behaviors and norms that varied by status and gender. Both parties, but especially women, had to pass character tests to be considered marriageable. The main requirement for a man was that he be a good provider; the primary requirement for a woman was chastity, and an occupation with an unsavory reputation was enough to sully the most blameless woman. Moreover, any fall in her past life or even one with the defendant, indicated to some men that such a woman was not due the title of 'wife.'" (82)

"The protracted nature of . . . courtship forced some couples to remain half-committed for a period longer than many marriages. Long engagements for poorer couples in the Victorian period were a common phenomenon. . . .These obstacles were doubly powerful when combined with the romantic ideal, a value system that encouraged men and women to search for true love. This quest for a perfect mate sometimes led couples away from each other rather than toward a closer union" (84).

"Middle-class writings on courtship were unanimous in condemning those who flirted with others when engaged, although most of them were preoccupied with women's behavior, warning them of the dangers of being thought of as flirts or coquettes. Such behavior justified a breach, since any woman who indulged in random flirting diminished her chances of finding a husband. However, a more lenient criterion was applied to men. The sexual double standard operated even before marriage, and this fact enabled men to find alternatives to their first fiancées without incurring social ostracism. Despite social disapproval, unfaithful men had little difficulty in finding new partners—a freedom that highlights men's advantages on the marriage market. Lower middle- and working-class women, the most likely victims of these inequalities, also sued most frequently" (88-89).

"The romantic ideal produced a final, more complicated reason for failed courtships in the Victorian era. Popular notions of romance and courtship encouraged couples to become engaged quickly, so many couples did not know each other well when they became engaged. Indeed, in ninety-eight cases the couple knew each other only a month or less before they promised marriage. . . .For instance, Alice Owens was introduced to Arthur Horton on August 4, 1889. They went for a drive together on August 5, and Arthur wrote her several letters from his army camp. Several days later they went for a walk, and Arthur hinted that he 'was in a position to get married.' The next Sunday he went to see her father. Without revealing what they discussed, he urged Alice as he left to 'be true.' On August 19 she visited his mother. Arthur then gave her an engagement ring and spoke to her father a second time. At that point the two became formally engaged, fifteen days after having met" (91-92).

"Age differences were common among late-Victorian couples. According to Jalland in her study of the upper classes, 'The husband was expected to be older than the wife; ideally by three to seven years, since women were supposed to age faster than men.'. . .[In the breach of promise here under study,] defendants were older than plaintiffs 84 percent of the time, but the ranges were quite often higher than the ideal, since half of the older defendants were more than ten years senior to the plaintiffs. However, few people involved in the trials disapproved of these age ranges. In several cases a woman in her twenties was considered well suited to a man in his forties or fifties.

Age led to failed courtships in only two instances. First, very large differences were problematic. James Hall was a fifty-six-year-old widower and a retired auctioneer when he proposed to his servant, Elizabeth Rice, who was twenty-one. Despite her parents' strong objections, Elizabeth and James got engaged. However, a few weeks later as the two of them were strolling together, 'some boys called out to the defendant "What are you doing walking about with a good-looking girl like that?" and there was also some vulgar chaff.' James was furious and embarrassed and broke off the match. More frequently, the defendants combined age with other reasons. Thomas Radford wrote to his fiancée, Fanny Wade, that he felt breaking it off was only right 'when I came to think of the wide difference of our ages and my income so small' (he was forty-six and she was twenty-four)" (94-95).

"The notion that Victorians were straitlaced prudes, both obsessed and repulsed by sex at the same time, has largely been exploded in the past several years. Sexuality was openly discussed in Parliament, newspapers, and journals; furthermore, only a fraction of the population could stay ignorant of the facts of life. The evidence from breach-of-promise cases also indicates a wider participation in sexual activity than the stereotypical view allowed. About 25 percent of the 875 breach-of-promise cases under study involved sexual activity between the couple, and the true figure is probably somewhat larger since there is little information on many cases. Barret-Ducrocq has recently shown that the working classes in London had a distinct set of sexual mores that defied those of the elite. The evidence of breach-of-promise cases, particularly the evidence of the high number of women engaged in sexual relationships, reveals a separate set of standards for the lower middle and upper working classes as well. These women used their sexuality in courtship, gambling that the intimacy would lead to a long-standing commitment or would push a reluctant fiancé to the altar. Most of these women must have realized the risks of pregnancy and desertion, but they entered sexual relations because of affection and hopes of marriage. Often this behavior resulted in a satisfactory conclusion—a wedding. But when the courtship failed, lower middle- and upper working-class women had a great deal to lose" (98).

"Premarital intercourse was an accepted part of courtship in the lower middle and 'respectable' working classes, but only in long-term relationships and infrequently even then. In most of the cases the woman had sex only with her fiancé or after an extended period of courtship. Although not acknowledged by most people outside of the working class, there was a long-held belief that sex with a fiancé was acceptable, since the couple were to be married anyway. The primary disgrace came if the woman became pregnant and the couple did not marry. Certainly, a fall under a promise of marriage was considered much less reprehensible than one without such assurances" (99).

"Premarital intercourse was infrequent because the couple were rarely able to use their own rooms. Because so much of the courtship happened in homes of the couple's parents, privacy was at a premium. Of course, in those cases in which the couple lodged together (for example, when the plaintiff was the defendant's housekeeper, landlady, or servant), opportunities for intimacy were easier to find. In other cases the couple did not become intimate until they took a trip together, either for entertainment or to make arrangements for the marriage. For instance, Annie Hooper claimed that William Stokes seduced her when she met him to look at an empty house they planned to buy. Similarly, Pryce Griffiths was unable to have sex with his young cousin until she visited his home in Liverpool.

Although some of the cases indicated male pressure and female acquiescence, others demonstrate a mutual desire for intimacy. In particular, some couples worked together to find times and places to be alone. Since bedrooms were unavailable, they used other rooms in the house. Elizabeth Morris and Thomas Bonville had intercourse in the parlor of Bonville's home after his father had gone to bed. Ann Rees and David Powell also used the private parlor of her parents' house, which Ann carefully locked each time they sat alone together. At other times couples did not try to use their parents' homes. Mary Wilkinson claimed that William Hampson had sex with her in a railway carriage between Manchester and Leigh; even more inventively, Esther Dales and Andrew McMaster used the harness room of the stables that Andrew rented from Esther's employer. Walks offered another opportunity, since most couples took strolls together at some time in their courtship, and several of them took advantage of the relative privacy" (100).