Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 13 - Breach of Promise Cases

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EVERY now and then, while the courts sit at Westminster, the general public derives an immense amount of entertainment from what are described as breach of promise cases. It is true there is a wonderful sameness about them. The defendant is amorous, and quotes a great deal of poetry. The court vastly enjoys the perusal of his letters, and the papers quote them entire and unabridged. The lady suffers much, and the public sympathies are decidedly with her. Of course there are some atrocious cases, for which the men who figure in them cannot be punished too severely; but as a rule, we do think the men have the worst of it. A young man is thrown into the company of an attractive young female; they both have little to do at the time, and naturally fall in love. She has as much to do with the matter as he, and yet, if he begins to think that he cannot keep a wife - that the marriage will not promote the happiness of the parties concerned - that the affair was rash, and had better be broken off - he is liable to an [-142-] action for breach of promise. Such cases are constantly occurring. The jury being decidedly romantic  - thinking love in a cottage to be Elysium - forgetting the vulgar saying that when poverty comes in at the door love flys out of the window - mark their sense of the enormity of the defendant's conduct in refusing to make an imprudent marriage, by awarding to the lady substantial damages.
    Now, we can understand how English jurymen - generally men with marriageable daughters, can easily make up their minds to give damages in such cases, but we more than question the invariable justice of such a course. When affection has died out, we can conceive no greater curse than a marriage; yet either that must be effected, or the jury will possibly agree to damages that may ruin the defendant for life. This we deem bad, nor do we think that a woman should always have before her the certainty that the promise given in that state of mind, which poets describe as brief insanity, an amiable jury will consider as an equivalent to an I.O.U. to any amount they please. We do protest against confounding a legal promise to marry with a promise to pay the bearer on demand 1000. We rather fear that this distinction is likely to be overlooked, not but that occasionally an action for breach of promise has a very happy effect. It serves as a moral lesson to ardent youths of an amorous disposition. It also furnishes the broken-hearted and forsaken fair with a dowry, which has been known to purchase her a husband in almost as [-143-] good a state of preservation as the gentleman who was to have borne that honoured name. All that we find fault with is the number of such cases.
    A gay deceiver is no enviable character for any respectable man to wear. No man of mental or moral worth would voluntarily assume it. But a spinster coming to a court of justice, and saying to the defendant, "You have taken my heart, give me your purse," is no very desirable position for a woman, though she may have the fortitude and strength of mind of a Mrs. Caudle herself. At any rate, the legal view of woman is very different to the poetical one, and for ourselves we infinitely prefer the latter. The view of the jury is, that a woman not marrying a man who has evidently no love for her, or he would not have married another, is to the plaintiff an injury - we think it is a happy escape - and an injury which deepens as the courtship lengthens. The jury reasons that the plaintiff, Mary Brown, is as good-tempered a girl as ever lived - that provided she could but marry she did not care who made her his wife. The position of the sexes is reversed, and the woman sings-
        "How happy could I be with either,
        Were t'other dear charmer away.
According to the jury, if Jones had not married Mary Brown, Jenkins would-consequently hers is a double loss. So that if a woman reaches the ripe age of thirty, by this arithmetic she is more wronged than she would have been had she been a blooming lass of twenty. In [-144-] the same manner there is a delicate sliding-scale for defendants in such cases. A bridegroom well-made and well-to-do has to pay no end of sovereigns for the damage he has done; while a short time since, a defendant who had been attacked with paralysis was let off for 50. Woman, in this view of the case, is as dangerous as a money-lender or a shark. Byron tells us-
        "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart-
         Tis woman's whole existence."
But our modern juries give us a very different reading. We prefer, however, to abide by the old.
    Most undoubtedly to win the affections of a woman and then desert her is a crime - but it is of a character too ethereal to be touched by human law. If the woman's heart be shattered by the blow, no amount of money-compensation can heal the wound, and a woman of much worth and of the least delicacy would shrink from the publicity such cases generally confer on all the parties interested in them. But if the principle be admitted, that disappointment in love can be atoned for by the possession of solid cash-if gold can heal the heart wounded by the fact that its love has been repelled - that its confidence has been betrayed-we do not see why the same remedy should not be within the reach of man. And yet this notoriously is not the case. When anything of the sort is tried the unhappy plaintiff seldom gets more than a farthing damages. Besides, what upright, honourable man would stoop for [-145-] a moment to such a thing; and yet, in spite of all modern enlightment, we maintain that the injury of a breach of promise on the part of a woman is as great as that on the part of a man. In the morning of life men have been struck down by such disappointments, and through life have been blasted as the oak by the lightning's stroke. With his heart gone-demoralised, the man has lived to take a fearful revenge for the first offence, possibly to become a cold cynic-sceptical of man's honour and woman's love. Yet breach of promise cases are not resorted to by men, and we cannot congratulate our fair friends on the fact that so many of them come into courts of law as plaintiffs in such cases. Bachelors will fear that, after all, it is true that-
        "Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare,
        And Mammon wins his way where seraphs might despair."
And the result will be that while the more impetuous of us will commit ourselves at once, and come within the clutches of law, the more cool and cunning will excite hopes, which deferred will make sick the heart, and inspire an affection which may exist but to torment the heart in which it had its birth. Ay, beneath such mental grief the beauty and blessedness of life may vanish, never to return, and yet all the while he who did the deed may defy the power of human law.
    Some letters which have recently appeared in the Manchester Examiner may be taken as evidence that these breach of promise cases interfere very materially [-146-] with marriages. In the immediate neighbourhood of Manchester the question, Why don't the men propose? appears to have excited considerable interest. In that busy region men fall in love and get married, and have families, and are gathered to their fathers, just as do the rest of her Majesty's subjects in other parts of the United Kingdom. But it seems the Lancashire witches are many of them still on their parent's hands. Paterfamilias gets anxious. Deeply revolving the question under the signature of "A Family Man," he sends the following letter to the Editor of the journal alluded to-
        "Sir, Your cosmopolitan journal," he writes to the Editor, "must have many readers interested in the question 'Why don't the men propose?' It would be dangerous to say I have found the entire solution to this enigma, for fear of disclosing a mare's nest; but I will warrant that one of the most powerful causes of the shyness of men in matters matrimonial, is the frequency of breach of promise prosecutions. A lady may be quite justified in prosecuting the man who has deceived her, but is she wise in doing so? Or if acting wisely for herself, does she not lower the character of her sex? Men think so, depend upon it. Your wavering, undecided, fastidious bachelor is a great newspaper reader, and devours breach of promise cases, and after reading that Miss Topkins has obtained so many hundred pounds' damages against Mr. Topkins, soliloquises:- 'Humph! It seems, then, that the best salve for a wounded heart is gold. Bah! women only marry for a home. It is clear [-147-] the woman is the only gainer, else why estimate her disappointment at so many hundred pounds? She gives a man nothing for his promise to marry but her heart (if that), and how much is it worth? What recompense can he get from her should she steal back the heart she professes to have given him! I'll take jolly good care I never make a promise of marriage to a woman (which means a bond for so many hundred or thousand pounds). No; if I marry, I marry; but catch me promising.' And thus, for fear of being trapped into committing himself, he avoids the society of women (where he might learn not only to really love, but to see the sophistry of his reasoning), and eventually settles down into old bachelorhood. What do the ladies say to this? Don't let them think I am a crusty old bachelor. Heaven forfend! I protest my supreme admiration of the fair sex, and had better say I am, A FAMILY MAN."
    "An unmarried young girl" replies: "Sir, looking over your valuable paper of to-day, I saw a letter headed, 'Why do not the men propose?' which I read with great interest, as I found that the writer, although of the opposite sex, was of the same opinion as myself, in regard to ladies prosecuting their late lovers for breach of promise of marriage. I do think it shows in them a mean spirit of revenge, of which a lady should not be guilty. It certainly does look as if they thought more of a shelter, a name, and a ring, than they do of a comfortable home and a loving and affectionate husband. I do not think it wise of them, as it must lower themselves [-148-] and all their sex in the estimation of the other sex. Besides, it does not speak much of their love for their lovers, for you know love hides many faults. I have never been deceived by any man, and I hope I never may, but the best advice I can give to my poor deceived sisters is to try and forget their faithless swains,, and leave them to the stings and reflections of their own consciences, which will be a far greater punishment to them than parting with thousands of gold and silver. Let them be thankful that they have shown themselves in their true colours before they had entered on a life of unhappiness and misery, feeling assured that the man who could deceive a fond, loving woman is a man of no principle at all. For my own part, I would scorn the man who ever proved false to a woman,- I would not trust him even in business." After this condemnation by a woman, let us trust we shall hear less for the future of breach of promise cases.