This was mostly the result of Victorian views about the proper roles of men and women: Men were supposed to be strong and protective, while women were weak and emotional. (See more on Gender Roles here)
Because Victorian women required protection, when a man offered or promised such protection, he had to honor that promise. The breach of promise suit – a legal claim that allowed a jilted person to obtain financial damages from their intended – grew into the standard remedy for a female who had suffered when a relationship that should have resulted in the security and stability of marriage went sour.
“Though seldom helpful to women in the criminal courts, the assumption of manly responsibility for providing, promise-keeping, and sexuality was a great asset to female plaintiffs in the civil tribunals,“ comments an article in Nineteenth Century Studies.
Also, according to this article, during the mid-Victorian years, as many as 100 men a year were sued in court by their former fiancées.
Denise Bates, author of Breach of Promise to Marry: A History of How Jilted Brides Settled Scores, mentioned in her guest post here that the disappointed brides often won their cases, and sympathetic juries often awarded them substantial sums of around 100 pounds (maybe 10,000 pounds today).
In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, the ambitious engineer Paul Montague had an affair with a woman named Mrs. Hurtle. They lived together in America, but she ditched him at the altar, and he returned to England thinking she was out of his life. However, she suddenly showed up in his life and insisted that because she had “given him all a woman had to give,” it was up to her to say whether their affair was over. Her weapon was the breach of promise of marriage suit.
In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, Angelina, the jilted bride, passionately tells the jury:
Oh, see what a blessing,
What love and caressing
I’ve lost, and remember it pray,
When you I’m addressing,
Are busy assessing
The damages Edwin must pay,
He must pay!
With real life, literature and music all telling them to beware of making hasty promises, Victorian men were very careful about breaking off their relationships with women!
I believe that in real life, Arthur Sullivan had this problem with respect to his painful and protracted relationship with Rachel Scott Russell.
Rachel Scott Russell was the daughter of a wealthy engineer, socially far above the promising but penniless young musician that Arthur Sullivan was at the time. Sullivan had begun to get favorable notices from the music critics, and he had powerful friends, but his income was spotty and depended upon selling the occasional piece of parlor music.
Passionately in love, Rachel “gave him all a woman has to give,” in Trollope’s words. In Rachel’s view, she and Arthur were married in every way that mattered. But Arthur’s income wasn’t good enough for Rachel’s parents. When the young couple went to ask permission, her mother forbade the marriage and demanded that they stop seeing one another.
So why didn’t they just stop seeing one another?
I think that because of the Victorian value system, Arthur couldn’t leave her. She had to leave him — and Rachel didn’t want to end the relationship.
So, they kept writing to one another in secret. They met in secret too. We know some of how the affair went, because Arthur saved all of Rachel’s letters, although he made her promise to destroy his letters to her, which she did.
Rachel argued and complained in her letters, but she never released him.
Rachel asked Arthur to get a steady job as a clerk in a bank. He refused to give up his musical career.
What’s a Victorian man to do?
According to Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, Sullivan began a love affair with Rachel’s sister Alice. Was he hoping that Rachel would find out about the affair and break things off with him permanently?
If that was the case, it didn’t work. The painful and prolonged relationship between Sullivan and Rachel dragged on for several years, before her parents finally married her off to another man and she moved to India.
The affair between Alice and Arthur faded out, too.
Arthur later found pleasure and companionship in his relationship with his married lover, Mrs. Ronalds. But he never did marry!