(Caveat: If you don't watch Downton Abbey, you probably won't enjoy this blog post)
Like millions of others, I am utterly gripped by the ITV period drama, Downton Abbey (although I find it impossible to watch without remembering this splendid spoof written by Jennifer Saunders).
Fellow fans will have watched the relationship - one could hardly call it a romance - develop between Lady Mary Crawley (aristocrat, no money) and Sir Richard Carlisle (vulgar, rich as Croesus).
Lady Mary and her frightfully common "you're wearing the wrong tweed" suitor are now engaged, Lady Mary because she wants plenty of money and Sir Richard because he has said money but no class and his future wife has it in imperious spades.
Muddying these clear, business-like waters however is Lady Mary's longing for Downton Abbey's heir, Matthew Crawley. Recently we discovered that Matthew had been grievously injured fighting in France and as a result his, ahem, gentleman parts were no longer in working order. Mary has been stoically wheeling Matthew round the grounds of the Abbey looking longingly at the back of his perfectly tousled blonde locks whilst Sir Richard in turn has been staring out of various windows at the pair of them, enquiring "Should I be jealous?" of anyone within earshot.
Which raises the question - what happened back then when one party wanted to break off an engagement?
These days it's as easy as breathing and there is little point in involving solicitors, although I have previously blogged about couples arguing over expensive engagement rings. But 1919 was a different time altogether. Yes the world was changing but a man's promise of engagement to marry a woman was considered by most legal jurisdictions a legally binding contract. If the man were to change his mind he would be said to be in "breach" of this promise and subject to litigation for damages.
Small chance of course of Sir Richard changing his mind but it is absolutely inevitable that Lady Mary will try to wriggle out of her engagement to Sir Richard now that Matthew's "tingling" has miraculously turned into a full blown recovery and equally inevitable that Sir Richard will have none of it.
Unless a dowry of money or property had changed hands, a man was unlikely to recover anything in a "breach of promise" suit against a woman, even supposing he filed one. Of course, Sir Richard holds the trump card here as Lady Mary's reputation, and thus any chance of making a suitable marriage, would be ruined if her little secret about the dead Turk in her bedroom ever came to light.
Every week as I watch Downton I think how interesting it is that those once interfering jurisdictions have now mostly become incredibly reluctant to intervene in personal relationships. Of course, sometimes anachronistic laws remain, technically, on the statute books but any actions arising from them are most unlikely. Yet it wasn't until 1970 that the law abolishing breach of promise was passed in parliament, becoming law in 1971. Astonishing, isn't it? And much, much too late for Sir Richard Carlisle.
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