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Breach of Promise of Marriage

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The legal doctrine that a man engaged to a woman (assuming he could lawfully marry her, of course) has made a legally binding commitment to marry her and is liable for damages if he backs out. By the way, the principle worked in reverse as well, though it seems that, generally, it was the man who tried to get out of it. Although the doctrine has existed since at least the Middle Ages, it is best known for its applications during the Victorian era, due to being a staple plot device for 19th Century comedy writers.

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In Victorian times, it was common for engaged women to lose their virginity during the engagement period, which of course meant that "seduce and abandon" incidents were also common. (Such women would be considered Defiled Forever, which could, at that time, jeopardize both their marriageability and, since women were typically dependent economically on their husbands, their futures.) To discourage such duplicity, a woman so victimized could sue for damages. Generally speaking, the woman was free to break the engagement without legal repercussions in most cases, since men had the opportunity to earn a living (and were not held to being virgins upon marriage), and thus being jilted did not affect a man's social and economic standing in the way it affected a woman's. A man could sue for damages if a dowry had already been paid.

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This is largely a Forgotten Trope, and normally appears only in older works and period pieces. As virginity became less important to a woman's marriageability and marriageability became less important to a woman's future, the notion of Breach of Promise as an actionable tort was undermined and eventually abolished around the middle of the 20th Century. Of course, that's not to say that the woman's family might not resort to extralegal means to enforce the promise. Additionally, someone who has taken action in reliance on the promise of marriage (e.g. quitting a job or breaking a lease or selling a house) to their ultimate detriment may be able to recover damages under the modern doctrine of promissory estoppel (or similar).

Breach of Promise may also appear in fantasy or speculative fiction settings, especially in depictions of pre-industrial societies.

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The modern descendant of this trope is the woman keeping the engagement ring if the man breaks off the engagement, the implication being that a woman's virginity is worth the price of a ring, though the law on that is more complicated (and varies by jurisdiction besides).note  Returning the Wedding Ring is when this is averted and the return of the ring is done through the narrative to show the end of the relationship.

Compare Arranged Marriage, where the promise is made by third parties (usually parents) and any legal action would be brought against one or more of the arrangers, not against the prospective bride or groom. May overlap with Runaway Fiancé, where the man simply flees to avoid his obligation without bothering to tell his betrothed that the wedding is off, or Runaway Groom, where he flees on the wedding day. It could also involve a Child Marriage Veto.


Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Ranma ½, Ukyo Kuonji was a victim of this twice over, first when she made a Childhood Marriage Promise with Ranma Saotome and then when their fathers agreed to marry their children, but Ranma's father Genma ran off with both his son and Ukyo's dowry and left her to believe it was all Ranma's fault. Once she finally tracks the Saotomes down and realizes Ranma wasn't the responsible party she forgives him but since she does actually still like him sticks around and becomes yet another member of Ranma's Unwanted Harem.

    Film 
  • Desire: Alluded to in a Getting Crap Past the Radar moment. Tom says that he grows on people. As an example he cites one girl back home, who didn't like him at first, but he was persistent, and he grew on her, until..."She sued me."
  • Referenced in, of all places, A Hard Day's Night, where Paul describes his grandfather (the clean old man) as a "villain, a real mixer, who'll cost you a fortune in breach of promise cases".
  • Havana Widows: Two burlesque dancers go to Havana with the express intent of finding a rich sucker to lure into a breach-of-promise case.
  • Mentioned in Libeled Lady (1936). Warren Haggerty has left Gladys Benton waiting at the altar while he rushes to his newspaper office to deal with an emergency. When Gladys shows up and tries to drag him off to the church, he protests:
    Warren: I can't go...the paper's in a jam! We're facing a libel suit!
    Gladys: You're facing a breach of promise suit! If you don't want to marry me, say so!
  • In "I'm No Angel" (1933) Tira sues Jack for breach of promise when he breaks off his engagement to her after finding another man in her apartment who is dressed only in a bathrobe.
  • Played straight in The Carpetbaggers, which sees the Howard Hughes Expy Jonas Cord as the defendant in several Breach of Promise lawsuits.

    Literature 
  • In Jeeves and Wooster, one of Jeeves' regular tasks is getting Bertie Wooster out of engagements while avoiding such lawsuits. The very last Jeeves and Wooster short story, "Jeeves and the Greasy Bird", has a con artist scam Bertie into making a faux marriage proposal only to demand a £2000 payoff to avoid just such a suit. Jeeves, naturally, gets Bertie off the hook.
  • The Pickwick Papers. One of Pickwick's adventures is being sued by his landlady, Mrs. Bardell, for breach of promise, although the alleged proposal was actually a misunderstanding on her part. Pickwick ends up in Fleet Prison after he refuses to pay compensation to her because he doesn't want any money to go to her unscrupulous lawyers.
  • The ninth book of Ann Perry's William Monk books (Historical Detective Fiction set in Victorian London) is called Breach of Promise. It starts when a highly public lawsuit is brought by the parents of a young heiress against a man who supposedly promised to marry her, but didn't. The man insists she must have been misinterpreting him, but his explanation is pretty feeble, so it's suspected instead that he's got some secret reason for backing out. Monk, the detective, is asked to find out what it is. (Then the man turns up dead, because he's in a murder mystery.)
  • In The French Lieutenant's Woman, Charles, an aristocrat and an heir to his uncle's family estate, is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, a rich industrialist's daughter. Charles meets Sarah Woodruff to whom he grows increasingly attracted and later decides to break off his engagement with Tina. He has to speak with Tina's father first and he wants to drag Charles through dirt and disgrace him in the polite society, because he both broke Tina's heart and made her "a rejected fiancee", worsening her prospects of ever marrying well.
  • In Service with a Smile, one of P. G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle novels, the false threat of this is used to extract money. The Duke of Dunstable wants to derail his son's wedding, but Uncle Fred warns that simply bullying the son into to backing out (as would be Dunstable's first instinct) might result in a breach of promise lawsuit. Dunstable therefore pays the fiancee a substantial sum of money to go quietly. In fact, Uncle Fred knows perfectly well that both parties want out of the engagement anyway - they each have other spouses in mind, being stopped by (among other things) a lack of money. Dunstable certainly wouldn't help with that problem voluntarily, but by pretending that the fiancee needs paying off when she's actually quite pleased, Uncle Fred gets the money out of him anyway.
  • In Georgette Heyer's The Foundling, a con artist uses a beautiful waif to lure rich, naive idiots into betrothal, then threatens legal action when they come to their senses and run.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire, Robb Stark agrees to marry a daughter of Walder Frey. Robb ends up marrying Jeyne Westerling, prompting Walder Frey to break their alliance and, out of revenge, murder Robb, his mother, his allies, and his army.
  • The central conflict of Sense and Sensibility rests on this concept — Edward formed a secret engagement with Lucy when they were teenagers; now that he's grown up and met Elinor, he's no longer in love with Lucy, but as long as she wants to go through with the engagement, he's bound to it. (It takes being disinherited in favor of his brother, prompting Lucy to dump him for said now-richer brother, to set him free.)
  • In Sons and Lovers, it's never stated outright but the probable reason why William won’t back out of his engagement to Lily even though she’s awful to his mother and treats his sister like a servant is because he's already had sex with her.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Frasier, Donny files a breach of promise suit against Daphne after she gets cold feet on their wedding day and decides not to go through with it.
  • The Scales Of Justice - episode "A Woman's Privilege". A man and woman become engaged during a cruise ship romance. The man sues the woman for breach of promise after she backs out.
  • The Andy Griffith Show featured Barney tricked into an making an Accidental Proposal to a conwoman, who demanded money with an accusation of this trope.
  • In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the clergy of the church of Satan sues Sabrina for this after she shows up at her Dark Baptism but backs out at the last minute, claiming that she showed up with the intent to marry the Dark Lord and backing out constitutes breach of contract.

     Mythology and Religion 
  • In The Bible, when Joseph finds out that his fiancée Mary is pregnant (and not by him), he is (understandably) skeptical about her claims that it happened without any sex on her part and that she is still a virgin. He decides to break off the engagement quietly (rather than having her be publicly humiliated and stoned to death). In order to do that, the text says he had to divorce her, not merely break up with her; this is because in that time and place, an engagement was just as legally binding as an actual marriage. (The only difference was that an engaged couple did not live together and weren't supposed to have sex, unlike an actual married couple.) He ultimately decides not to go through with that, because an angel appears to him to let him know that Mary was telling the truth and that he should go through with the marriage as originally planned.

    Theater 
  • Gilbert and Sullivan fans will recognize Trial by Jury as a Breach of Promise case. When the plaintiff enters, the first line the chorus of bridesmaids sings is, "Comes the broken flower", suggesting a seduce-and-abandon scenario.
  • In the original version of Of Thee I Sing, Diana accuses Wintergreen of breach of promise. The Setting Update to 1952 removed the references to the outdated doctrine.
  • In the third Dream Sequence in Lady in the Dark, Liza Elliott is put on trial for refusing to marry Kendall Nesbitt as she promised. The phrase "breach of promise" is not used (except in early drafts of the scene), partly because women were traditionally immune to such claims, as Liza suggests: "...the rights of womankind / tra la, permit a change of mind."
  • William Shakespeare gives us:
    • Henry IV, Part 2: Mistress Quickly has Falstaff arrested for debt and breach of promise.
    • Henry VI Part 1: Gloucester's first objection to Henry's marriage to Margaret is that he's already betrothed to the Earl of Armagnac's daughter.
    • Henry VI Part 3: Edward IV starts a war with his most powerful supporter Warwick and King Louis of France when he marries Lady Grey while Warwick is proposing to France's sister on his behalf.
    • Richard III: Richard and Buckingham use the circumstances of Edward's marriage to have his sons Edward V and York declared illegitimate. (See the Real Life folder.)
    • Much Ado About Nothing: Claudio is required to marry allegedly-dead Hero's alleged cousin, among other reparations, after his rejection of Hero proves to have been unjustified.
  • In One Touch of Venus, Gloria says to Venus, "I'm going to sue that little weasel for breach of promise—and name you!" It's not clear which jurisdiction she intended to pursue this claim in, especially since New York and New Jersey (the only states relevant to the action) both abolished breach of promise actions in 1935.

    Real Life 
  • There are still US states that recognize Breach of Promise(South Carolina and Georgia, among others; South Carolina in Campbell v. Robinson in 2012 and Georgia in Shell v Gibbs in 2008, though the first case didn't result in actual money being awarded and the second seams to have mostly covered loss of income because Miss Shell quit her job in anticipation of moving in with Mr. Gibbs.)
  • King Edward IV of England was said to have been precontracted to Lady Eleanor Butler (nee Talbot) when he secretly married Elizabeth Woodville. After his death, and conveniently that of Lady Eleanor, his children were declared illegitimate in an Act of Parliament called Titulus Regius, the legal cover for the succession of Richard III. Given that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Wydville was incredibly unpopular, it is to say the least odd that Lady Eleanor and her powerful family didn't make trouble at the time.
    • Although this was not strictly speaking a breach of promise to marry, as under medieval canon law a promise to marry followed by consummation constituted a form of marriage. Under Titulus Regius Edward IV was deemed Lady Eleanor’s husband. (The same quirk of canon law likely led to Queen Kathryn Howard’s doom as well. After she was arrested it emerged that she and Francis Dereham had called each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ during their sexual relationship. Under the law of the time that made them a married couple and, had the matter been heard before an ecclesiastical court, would have rendered her subsequent marriage to Henry VIII invalid.)
  • The fact that "having sex during engagement and then not marrying the other person" has been a legal category and enforceable by law is often brought up in trivia contests or "Oh go how backwards our forebears were". In Germany "Wreath money" was formally on the books until 1998 (though East Germany had abolished it in the 1950s, and judges in 1993 had refused to enforce it).
  • This was a key part of the famous trial where Artemisia Gentileschi brought charges of rape against her father's colleague Agostino Tassi, since after the initial rape Tassi had continued to have sexual relations with Artemisia by promising to marry her since she had been a virgin before the rape, but once it became clear he had no intention to actually follow through with this Artemisia's father Orazio filed charges against him. The fact that Tassi was already married and had intended to murder his wife while also engaging in adultery with his sister-in-law and planned to steal from Orazio didn't help his case at all, and the Gentileschis won the case, though Tassi never actually served his sentenced prison time.

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