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Courting: An intimate history of love and the law

  • 19 April 2024
Courting: An intimate history of love and the law, Alecia Simmonds, La Trobe U/P and Black Inc.    One of my grandfathers, named Will, died young, so I know little about him. There is a wedding photograph, and I do know that Will was a farmer who had to leave the land because of the familiar Australian story of drought and flood. The only other thing I know is that he was once sued for breach of promise. But that story is lost in the thick mists of time, for adults imparted little information to young children then, and the latter were not encouraged to ask questions. My grandmother occasionally remarked that men were deceivers ever: she must have known something about the episode, but she was the one Will married, and so kept her own counsel. Wisely.

Academic Alecia Simmonds, senior lecturer in law at the University of Technology, Sydney, has written a fascinating and thoroughly researched account of breach of promise cases in Australia from the time of the first European settlement in 1788 until the 1970s, when the Family Law Act was passed, and breach of promise cases were no longer tried. During this time, approximately a thousand cases came before the courts. As Simmonds so aptly observes, love is a creature of its time, and so ideas, attitudes and conduct of affairs of the heart change and evolve as time passes. And of course, the heart is a notoriously unreliable and wayward organ, and love can be transgressive in upsetting codes of conduct and expectations.

Much of the book is taken up with individual stories of court cases during this period of almost 200 years. In all the cases documented, only one involves a man suing a woman for breach of promise. The reason for this is that women were bound to suffer more economically if their hopes of marriage were dashed. In the long stretch of time between 1788 and the 1960s, most women were dependent on men and marriage for their livelihood and for their social cachet. Spinsters were usually objects of pity: even my own mother, born in 1922, said more than once that ‘all a woman wants is a home, a husband and a family’. When Will died, his widow Harriet, who had been deprived of an education and was left with three children to raise, had no choice but to run a boarding house, which