What was with breach of promise of marriage actions?

In an episode of The Duchess of Duke Street a breach of promise of marriage is the big to-do. The same kind of action was the cause of the trial in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury.

At first I actually thought, when watching Trial by Jury, that Gilbert just made it up as a joke, but apparently women could sue if a marriage engagement was broken off.

I don’t get it–why would this ever be a legal issue? Why would a broken engagement be so bad? It just seems like a joke.

It was viewed as a contract. Sometimes, the woman agreed to have sex to a man who promised to marry her, and then, if he breaks it off, ehar then?

It was a different time

Why would any breach of contract be a legal issue? Because it causes real financial problems when party A promises party B a particular financial arrangement and then subsequently reneges. Party B presumably invested resources into its side of the arrangement and gave up other opportunities in favour of party A.

There was a time where a woman’s life could be ruined by a broken engagement. Even if less than ruined she could argue that her prospects for marriage were diminished by a broken engagement. In a world where a woman could not have a career, or an education, or even own property, this was her only recourse to be renumerated for the her dimished potential. Over time those circumstances have changed, but as usual the law has been slow in keeping up. I recall some late laws were still in effect in recent years that allowed this kind of suit, though I doubt it would be easy to win such a case anymore.

When a man jilted a woman, it affected her value on the marriage market. A action compensated her for the damage to her reputation. It was in some ways analogous to the torts of libel and slander, although it was framed in contract law.

See Great Expectations for a case study on the effects of a man breaking off the wedding.

Technically, men could also sue if the woman broke off the marriage, but such cases were much rarer. There were actually some differences in the way the action worked in the case of a female plaintiff and a male plaintiff.

The Province of Saskatchewan in Canada only abolished the action in 2010. See The Queen’s Bench Amendment Act, 2010

Note that another form of loss the woman might have taken is she turned down other suitors since she was engaged. These other suitors might have since gotten engaged/married to other woman and they are no longer an option.

So the woman has lost valuable opportunities to be married respectably and be taken care of.

Time has passed, she has gotten older. That was a very important factor back then.

IIRC - There even used to be “alienation of affection” lawsuits for someone that seduced your spouse.

Here’s the text of the QB Amendment:

I can’t help myself: here’s a Wikipedia cite for No Wikipedia Cites.

Just to add to the question, but was this something a RICH woman would do?

What I mean is was it at all common for lower or middle class women to file such suits?

All I know about it is from comedic novels (e.g. The Pickwick Papers) and in those novels no one would ever jilt a RICH woman! Marrying a rich woman is like hitting the jackpot in the lottery. :wink:

In the sources I’ve seen, like Duchess of Duke Street, or Trollope’s The American Senator, the engagements are done in secret, by evidence such as words said in private.

How would that impact a woman’s social value? Nobody would have even known about it had they not raised the issue.

Engagements were announced eventually, and it was a much bigger deal to break off an engagement that had already been made public.

I think they have been replaced with lawsuits for Tortious Interference with a contract ( the contract, in this case, being the marriage contract). I’m not sure how many states allow this.

in the good old days, when for upper and upper middle class, soceity position or reputation was everything - if a person wer dumped, I’m sure tongues would start wagging and the reputation of the dumpee would be subject to innuendo and whispers of terrible charater flaws and misdeeds. I suppose in those days, in that society, everyone including judges recognized the damage done to a reputation. A lawsuit would give the person a chance to clear their name, as the whole thing would be discussed in court and the dumper would have to explain his actions and admit (we hope) there was nothing wrong with the other person.

Even a secret betrothal, the person and possibly their family would feel evry offended and want satisfaction.

In evaluating breach of promise suits, one has to recall that the status of women in society was until somewhat recently monumentally different. Married women weren’t allowed to own property, conduct business, or sign contracts. They were at the mercy of their husbands for their economic survival, even if their husbands had abandoned them. That was true of women from wealthy families just as it was the poor or working class – making a good matchwas a socail and economic necessity. And therefore legal protection of those efforts was perfectly appropriate.


I can’t comment on the legal aspects, but I just wanted to chime in to say that I only recently found out that my grandmother actually won an award of $10,000 in a breach of promise suit back around 1912. I don’t have a chart handy but I’m thinking that was a whole lot of money back then. She ended up marrying my grandfather in 1916. I don’t know if that is any indication that her value in the marriage market was diminished or that my grandfather was a less desirable suitor. I just found this little bit of family history fascinating.

At minimum, it’s a breach of an oral contract. But in the mid 20th century most states realized that since women were becoming more self-sufficient, and that contract damages should deter someone from backing out of a lifetime commitment that they were doubting, they eliminated the common law tort.

Think of it this way. Two people enter into a contract, a rich man and a poor woman. The rich man promises to marry her. This means she will live in a huge house, have servants, wear expensive clothes and jewelry, and never go hungry.

If he breaks the contract, he takes all that away. At a time when most women could only get low paying jobs, this is a serious thing.

If he breaks it off for a good reason, fine. But if he breaks it off without a good reason, then the perception is he was just using the woman. Make her a lot of promises, get what he wants - sex, or just lots of attention. Then dump her and move onto the next.

With two rich people, it’s a little different. If the man breaks up with her, maybe she’s “not good enough” for him. Maybe her family isn’t good enough for him. Other rich men decide to play it safe, and not get involved with her.

Also, upper class marriages were sometimes called off because a skeleton was found in the closet. So if a man calls off his marriage without giving any reason, people may start gossiping. There’s something wrong with her family, don’t marry into it.

technically, I believe it was an action in contract, not in tort, just like any other failure to comply with contractual obligations.