I’m blogging today at Austen Authors! The subject: some surprising facts about breach of promise suits. Did you know that, early on, they were just as often brought by men suing women as women suing men? Did you know that neither the plaintiff nor the defendant was allowed to testify? These are some of the weird things I discovered when I researched the subject for my second novel, For Myself Alone. Here’s my post:
While researching the subject for my second Austen-inspired novel, For Myself Alone, I discovered that my previous ideas (like most people’s) had been heavily influenced by popular culture – what author Ginger S. Frost in her book Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England calls “the myth of breach of promise.” She sights works such as Charles Dicken’s Pickwick Papers and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury as being responsible for some of our misconceptions, writing:
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.
“Excuse me, Mr. Gerber. May I be frank?”“By all means.”“You speak of claims, damages and settlements as if it is simply a matter of course. Perhaps for you it is, but not for me. In fact, it strikes me that the whole scheme is little better than a form of legalized extortion! Do not misunderstand me; the money is of minimal importance to me. It is the principle involved that is impossible to surrender. Mr. _____’s bad conduct is responsible for placing me in this dreadful position. And now, on top of what I have already suffered, he threatens to drag me into court. Does such barbarous behavior deserve to be rewarded?”“I understand your repugnance for the notion, Miss Walker… My own personal sympathies tend in much the same direction, I assure you. However, years of experience have taught me that survival often demands compromise. In the judicial system, taking an unyielding stand for one’s principles can prove exceedingly hazardous… and enormously expensive. That is the plain truth. As your solicitor, it is my sworn duty to steer you away from such peril. …Nevertheless, should you be firmly of that mind, there is another course of action you may wish to consider – a very effective but extreme measure. I hesitate even to mention it.”“Tell me. …You promised to be straightforward with us, sir. Now, tell me your idea!”“As you wish, Miss Walker…”