Breach of promise of marriage suits originated in the ecclesiastical courts; the Hardwicke Marriage Act, however, invalidated betrothals and forced jilted lovers to use the common law courts for redress. This study is based on 875 breach of promise cases in England and Wales between 1750 and 1970, most of which occurred between 1850 and 1900.
Lower-middle and upper-working class couples had a definite set of courtship rituals, based on their desire for respectability and their simultaneous lack of economic security. Though most couples wanted to find the companionate ideal, they also needed to have good homemakers (for men) and solid providers (for women). They indulged in middle-class sentimentality in their letters and poetry, yet their courting was less formal and unsupervised. This mixture of needs was also reflected in their motives for separating, a combination of ideological, structural and personal difficulties.
There was a sustained argument over breach of promise in the later Victorian period, which showed the tensions between individualism and companionate marriage in its culture. The legal community was divided over the desirability of the suit; most judges supported it and most lawyers did not. It also divided the populace, since the lower classes were favorable, but the upper classes abhorred it. Women, too, were unable to agree, breach of promise protected them, but it also placed them in a special category that was inherently unequal. Ironically, the plaintiffs, by appealing to the patriarchal courts, proved to be strong feminists, since they refused to be passive in the face of victimization. This showed great determination, since most of the commentators on the action were hostile; breach of promise cases in fiction, in fact, were overwhelmingly negative, legitimizing the upper-class disdain for the suit and ignoring its usefulness for poorer women.