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Reviewed by:
  • Broken Engagements: The Action for Breach of Promise of Marriage and the Feminine Ideal, 1800–1940
  • Ginger Frost (bio)
Broken Engagements: The Action for Breach of Promise of Marriage and the Feminine Ideal, 1800–1940, by Saskia Lettmaier; pp. xix + 209. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, £65.00.

Broken Engagements reviews the legal and cultural history of the action of breach of promise of marriage in the modern period. Using a sampling method that includes two national and three regional newspapers, law professor Saskia Lettmaier bases her conclusions on 250 actions brought primarily between 1800 and 1940. In addition to legal sources, the author also reviews plays, short stories, songs, and novels that include real or contemplated trials. Lettmaier groups her analysis in three parts. The first period (1800–1850) saw both the gendering of the action into a “ladies’ action” and its biggest successes: women masked their assertiveness behind the language of passivity in court and reaped large rewards (30). Lettmaier contends that this period, during which domesticity (the “feminine ideal” of the title) established its cultural dominance, was the most successful; satires existed, but they targeted inappropriate plaintiffs rather than the action itself. The second period (1850–1900) saw the destabilization of the action, since the 1869 Evidence Amendment Act allowed women to take the stand. This not only showed the aggression and immodesty of many plaintiffs, but also opened the action to working-class women, thus “vulgarizing” it (136). Criticism mounted as a result, and the cultural representations became harsher while awards lowered. The final period (1900–1940) was one of decline. Again, Lettmaier argues that gender is the explanation; as domesticity and the passive feminine ideal became extinct, the action that depended on them also disappeared. Cultural representations, similarly, saw breach of promise as an anachronism well before its abolition in 1970.

Lettmaier is to be commended for her attention to gender, particularly considering her audience of legal historians. Her decision not to rely solely on appeals cases is [End Page 151] also a wise one, though the reader hears about few of these cases. She does an excellent job recounting legal strategies and analyzing literary texts, which include both American and British works. The chronological breakdown, though, is puzzling. The action did indeed become gendered during the early nineteenth century, and she is convincing in her analysis of the ways in which women avoided the obvious contradictions of the suit. But the change in the action occurred in 1869, not 1850. Allowing women to testify in their own behalf opened the action to a much larger population of women and showcased their assertiveness. Reference to the Judicial Statistics, indeed, shows a sudden surge after 1870, not 1850; the number of cases per year jumped from an average in the mid-twenties in the 1860s to fifty-nine in 1872 and sixty-seven in 1873, for example (the numbers settled down by the late 1870s, but stayed higher than in the earlier period). Lettmaier places the change earlier, I suspect, because she wants to make Smith v. Ferrers (1846) her sample case for that section. Even accepting that her chronology is accurate, the fact that her best example of the vulgarization of the action is actually in the earlier time period is problematic. Given that the real change in the action occurred in 1870, using that case is even less defensible. Furthermore, the author’s dating of the demise of the action in 1900 is too early. The real decline for working-class women was unlikely to have occurred before the 1920s, since their economic gains during World War I were temporary. This problem results from Lettmaier’s reliance on newspapers rather than assize records. Many papers stopped writing about such cases by 1914 unless they were sensational; the glut of real news simply crowded them out. As a percentage of population, the number of cases probably did decline between the wars, but one cannot prove this from newspaper coverage. The Judicial Statistics stopped including breach of promise suits in its reports in 1922, but the number of cases from 1919 to 1921 was fifty-two, forty-eight, and thirty-eight...


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pp. 151-153
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