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“Breach of Promise of Marriage” Guest Post by Vicki Hopkins

One of my hobbies is researching my British ancestry on my mother’s side of the family. Part of that process includes reading British newspapers in search of articles on my ancestors. My second great uncle was a Justice of the Peace, Alderman, and successful businessman, so I’m always looking for articles regarding his life and have found quite a few (over thirty thus far).

While doing so, I stumbled across another fascinating area in the lives of men and women from 1800-1850 in regards to lawsuits for the “breach of promise of marriage.” My search has uncovered over 6,000 links to articles in newspapers across England regarding such cases.

I thought I would share with you what I noted but must do so in generic terms. Unfortunately, I cannot quote any of the articles due to copyright restrictions.  I imagine, however, the situations were common.  What I love most about reading these articles is the language used that is so “Jane Austen” in prose. In addition, the evidence of love letters are printed in the newspapers sometimes just referencing the content but other times printing the entire letter. Juicy indeed!

As far as jury settlements, the poor received much less, while the wealthy were assessed large sums of money.  The jury deliberations were usually under an hour. The highest I have discovered out of a sampling of ten articles is £4,000 and the smallest £60.  Surprisingly, not only women filed cases, but also men sued women for breach of marriage. Marriage was big business, and both parties had much to lose if one broke the engagement. Losses did not involve mere matters of the heart but the promise of fortunes gained and lost.

Here are few generalizations of what I have read:

  • The ages of the parties varied. Girls as young as eighteen accepted proposals from men over the age of fifty.
  • First cousins married, sometimes knowing each other from infancy and later forming attachments. This scenario reminded me of Mr. Knightly and Emma since he was sixteen years of age when she was born.
  • Men courted for the purpose of seduction. Tsk. Tsk. And yes, once they got what they wanted, they abandoned the young lady breaking their promise of marriage. The court, apparently, did not look kindly upon such instances. Unfortunately, the inevitable pregnancy happened, too, and the lady was left without support.
  • Men or women could be of humble means or possess considerable property being independently wealthy. It appeared the men pursued women for money (think Willoughby), and when the engagement fell through, they sued for damages.
  • Those in service together with the same employer (think Downton Abbey) fell in love but broke engagements.
  • The few reasons I noted for the “breach of promise of marriage” were as follows:  a) the family objected to the match (seemed to be common); b) inability to provide for both immediate family (parents) and wives at the same time; c) immoral gain of seduction without love; and d) change of heart with no other particular reason given. Solicitors painted pictures of ruined ladies who were downcast, depressed, and in ill-health both physically and mentally due to abandonment.
These articles are a goldmine of fascinating reading. The language used is priceless, and the situations typical of those in want of a wife or husband in the early 19th century. It’s a soap opera of epic proportions that I will probably enjoy reading for months to come. No doubt, they will inspire a few stories.


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Historical Tidbit: "The Victorian Wedding" by Vicki Hopkins

While writing my award-winning novel, Dark Persuasion, I spent a fair amount of time researching Victorian courting, wedding preparations, weddings, and honeymoons.  The entire process felt so romantic to me that I focused quite a bit about the wedding between my heroine and hero.

Below are a few excerpts from previous blogs that I’ve written regarding that research.  I hope you enjoy!

The Wedding Trousseau

In Dark Persuasion, because my heroine is blind, her sister is actively involved in preparations for the wedding. One task is helping prepare Charlotte’s wedding trousseau.
The French word trousseau refers, of course, to a bride’s bundle of personal possessions amassed prior to the wedding that include undergarments and clothing. Late in the 19th and early 20th century a collection of household wares (tablecloths, towels, linens, etc.) were also included.
My story is set roughly around the 1885-1890, so Charlotte’s collection of personal items deal mainly with fine undergarments and clothing. Below is an excerpt from Vintage Connection describing a typical trousseau around 1884. It would include the following:
“… a dozen chemises trimmed with embroidery or insertions, a dozen nightdresses, six well-trimmed combinations, a dozen drawers, nine trimmed petticoats, one French petticoat, nine camisoles, six vests, five flannel petticoats, two dressing gowns, three bed jackets, a dozen pairs of fine-quality Lisle stockings, three pairs of silk stockings, two dozen handkerchiefs, a pair of French corsets, a bustle, a satin nightdress and a lace-trimmed sachet.”

The Wedding

Everything in the Victorian era seemed to be dictated by proper etiquette. Weddings were no different. There were rules about fashion, the time to wed, and the reception. It was quite an interesting read doing research about the subject. I tried to incorporate as much as I could within my text in hopes of ducking any criticism about getting it all wrong.  Here are a few short, but interesting facts.
If the bride married in a church, a gown with a long train and a veil of the same length was the style of the era. The veil remained over the bride’s face until after the wedding ceremony. I’ve read conflicting statements regarding kissing at the altar, but I allowed a smooch anyway for my characters.
Pure white had not yet become the standard of choice in wedding dresses. Colors varied. The dress pictured in this post is from roughly 1890. I like to visualize it as Charlotte’s dress, my blind heroine, in the story. I love the detailed bodice, the fabric, and the long train (not shown here). Bridesmaids often wore the same color of dress as the bride.
Superstitions abounded. There were rhymes about what day of the week was best to wed, the color of a bride’s dress, and, of course, the famous saying: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a lucky sixpence in your shoe.”  Each item had a meaning and purpose like the sixpence, which was meant to bless the wedding with wealth and prosperity.  No one married on Sunday, but the other days all had meaning:
Marry on Monday for health
 Tuesday for wealth
 Wednesday the best day of all
 Thursday for crosses
 Friday for losses
Saturday for no luck at all.

(Obtained from The Victorian Wedding)

After the service, the tossing of rice, grain, or birdseed was used for good luck when it came to fertility. If it were a wealthy couple, a carriage drawn by four white horses waited for the bride and groom after the service to take them to the reception. The reception was usually held at the bride’s home. Weddings took place in the morning around 11 o’clock, and the reception consisted of a wedding breakfast.
An area for a receiving line would have been set up for the bride and groom at the reception. Brides were addressed first, unless the guest only knew the groom. In that instance, the groom would introduce the bride. I must laugh when I discovered that the bride was never congratulated, as the honor of marriage was conferred upon her already for agreeing to marry the groom. (Lucky spinster finally finds a husband, I guess.)
Guests enjoyed their breakfast, but there was no entertainment at the reception. Evening receptions, with dancing, only occurred at lavish wedding affairs.
After the reception, the bride changed into another dress for her honeymoon journey. Only the groom and the best man knew the location, which by tradition was a well-kept secret.
There are many websites regarding Victorian-era weddings. The link in this post has quite a bit of detail. However, the Victorian era spanned many years, as you know, so traditions changed somewhat as the years progressed.

Such is the romance of the Victorian ages.