The Breach-of-Promise Suit: Perils and Literary Possibilities

With the debut of my second novel, it’s time for another round of guest blog spots. So it’s back to Italy and an appearance on Maria Grazia’s My Jane Austen Book Club! This post features an intriguing Austen-era phenomenon: the breach-of-promise suit, which plays a prominent role in For Myself Alone. Be sure to follow the link to Maria’s site to read the rest of the post and to sign up for 3 more chances to win a copy of the book!

 

 

The Darcys of Pemberley, a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, was my first novel, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. But for my second book, I set myself a new challenge: to write an entirely original story in the Jane Austen mode. I wondered what else she might have written had she lived. What direction would her creativity have carried her next?

Money (the want of it, more specifically) is a reoccurring theme in Jane Austen’s novels as it was in her own life – the well-bred young lady of small fortune, who had to marry or risk sinking into poverty (like Miss Bates). That’s how my heroine in For Myself Alone begins as well. But then I turn the tables… (continue reading here or now also available below)

But then I turn the tables by giving her a large, unexpected inheritance. Instead of solving all her problems, however, the money simply creates new ones, making Jo the target of fortune hunters and ultimately an unwilling party to a breach-of-promise suit.

Breach-of-promise suits are an intriguing phenomenon unique to the 18th and 19th centuries, and we think of them as being brought by a jilted woman against her former fiancé. And so it typically was in later years.  With a shorter “self life” and a more fragile reputation, a long engagement that came to nothing was far more likely to damage the intended bride’s future prospects than the groom’s. But as it turns out, early on in their history these suits were just as often filed by a jilted man, claiming emotional trauma or financial loss.

Going to court was perilous, though, often adding insult to injury. Tainted reputations could be further tarnished. And as for the monetary judgments, juries were notoriously unpredictable. They often ignored the evidence and the judge’s instructions to side with the barrister who put on the best show, awarding either nothing or an outrageous sum according to their collective whim. Defendants sometimes went to extreme lengths to avoid paying too, preferring imprisonment or even emigrating instead.

Breach-of-promise suits were a painfully messy business. But I showed no mercy; I threw my unsuspecting heroine right into the middle of one. How did she fare? Oh, no; I’ll never tell!

(Read another post about breach-of-promise suits here)

 

“He did not stipulate for any particular sum, my dear Fanny; he only requested me, in general terms, to assist them, and make their situation more comfortable than it was in his power to do. Perhaps it would have been as well if he had left it wholly to myself. He could hardly  suppose that I should neglect them. But as he required the promise, I could not do less than give it; at least I thought so at the time. The promise, therefore, was given, and must be performed.” (John Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, chapter 2 – a promise later broken)

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About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
This entry was posted in contests, Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, my books, Shannon Winslow's writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Breach-of-Promise Suit: Perils and Literary Possibilities

  1. suzan says:

    loved it. I can hardly wait to read this book. I think the premise sounds great.

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