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Breach of Promise

Legally binding betrothals

A Breach of Promise was nothing at which to sniff. Men did not enter engagements lightly for if they were sued for damages for trying to break off the engagement, not only would their reputation be ruined, so would their pocketbook.

Take for instance the 1824 case of Maria Foote, who sued betrothed Joseph Hayne and won £3,000 for damages rendered (never mind Maria Foote was someone else's mistress at the time).

You might recall this is the issue Edward Ferrars faces in Sense & Sensibility. Although he is now older and in love with Elinor, his childhood sweetheart plans on exploiting his youthful promises. Rather than risk a Breach of Promise suit and the loss of his honour, he upholds his promise as a gentleman. If he had tried to break off the engagement, and his childhood sweetheart chose to sue, Edward would have been ruined and unable to marry Elinor. He could have been forced by the courts to marry his childhood sweetheart, but if allowed to severe the engagement, then he would have had to pay for damages rendered (ie the broken heart and the loss of the girl's reputation for being dumped), likely money he did not have and had no way of obtaining, which would lead to a whole new set of issues, and he would have been ruined by the scandal and loss of gentlemanly status in the community. If he did not end up married to her or in prison afterwards, he would have been shunned by society and forced to live in isolation as a recluse.

Needless to say, one did not break off an engagement unless it was completely and totally mutual, but that is rather tricky, is it not? How does one know if it will be mutual since any mention of breaking an engagement could lead to ruin? For that matter, even a mutual break could be scandalous since society would then wonder what was wrong with each party to have decided not to marry.

To read more, check out my full research post detailing the legalities and exploring a few examples: Break of Promise

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