Courting by Alecia Simmonds

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

One of the more unusual institutions in Zagreb, Croatia, is the Museum of Broken Relationships. Populated by objects and words that tell heartbreaking, though sometimes comical, stories of those who have loved and lost. Courting is a book about a particular kind of broken relationship – one that ends just as it is about to start.

Courting could have been (less cleverly) titled Jilting, because this book is a compilation of two centuries of Australian court trials for Breach of Promise to Marry. The legal concept is archaic and occurs when a man and a woman (yes, it’s exclusively hetero) “promise” to marry and one of them fails to do so.  Legal proof of the “promise” has varied over the centuries, as has the nature of the compensation and the litigants. For example in the 19th century, most litigants were working women seeking  financial compensation. A century later, society and attitudes to marriage had changed so much that in 1976, Australia’s breach of promise laws were revoked.

Dr Alecia Simmonds has catalogued every Australian action for breach of promise that appeared in newspapers, and before that in the records of the court of civil jurisdiction from 1788…..[Her] book is the first comprehensive history of the action across two centuries… [p11]. In other words, it is an audit that yields remarkable detail about the lives of the uncoupled individuals.  Perhaps only a lawyer could display such diligence amongst those many transcripts.

How does she compress so much information into a single paperback? Firstly, combining 448 pages with a small font means that a lot of words are available. Her writing gracefully blends the precision of a lawyer with the sensitivity of a social historian. The result is beautifully crafted and forensically delineated. This is not a book to be skimmed – every sentence demands a reader’s concentration– there is an implicit contract that the author has taken such care with her writing that we should do the same with our reading.

As to structure, the book is divided into four time periods that cover the approximately 190 years that the law operated.  In each period a single case study is analysed in depth as representative of the times – contrasting the societal and legal evolution over nearly two centuries. The four major cases are of interest in themselves, but it is the personal, social and historical context supplied by the author that makes their significance apparent. Her synthesis of the other cases mines a rich vein of information about how courtship took place and how each period operated with a different set of behavioural norms.

The storytelling that accompanies the case studies is evocative of the times: Harriet’s story begins not far from the courtroom – a little to the east, up over the hill from Government house, down to Woolloomooloo Bay, twinkling at night with the small bobbing fires of Eora women fishing in bark nowees, and across to the neat rows of fruit trees and tobacco plantations of Woolloomooloo Farm – the residence of commissary John Palmer, his wife Susannah and their four children [p29].

The contextual analysis explains some of the apparently strange behaviour of the litigants, including the motivations for bringing the action, despite the risk of a media frenzy.  The historical import of each case study is summarised at the end, for example in Perth before the roaring 1920s: The case represented a dramatic encounter between consumer culture, new masculine and feminine identities, romance and the law. It was a case that put modern love on trial [p259].

Breach of Promise is a fascinating topic because it equipped women (and sometimes men) of all social classes to seek some form of redress for the emotional, societal and financial damage that ensue from one partner withdrawing from an implied contract to marry. The reasons can be complex and the basis for the action has changed dramatically in 200 years. But one thing is clear: that laws and mores around courtship and marriage are inextricably linked with women’s place in the society of the day. Although the specific law no longer exists, these legal actions are not a historical curiosity or an anachronism but fundamental to our feminist past and instructive of a feminist future [p367].

As social mores changed, so did practicalities: A romance that took place in hotels, restaurants, theatres and motor cars was also more expensive than a visit to the family home and a walk around a park…….romance was now an investment [p273]. And there are some delightful insights: Robina, like other women, knew that whatever power she might exercise over men through her sexuality, it came with a use-by date [p348].

The changes that led to the effective repeal of the action were profound: Times had changed, they said, and to suggest that women were delicate creatures dependent upon marriage for a vocation, or that their reputations would be ruined by being jilted, was incorrect and patronising  [p354]. The conclusions highlight that although there is now no case for returning such laws, the legal system has a number of shortcomings that need to be filled. In the digital age, fraud and deception are easier than ever, and legal recourse is demonstrably inadequate.

This book is an important contribution to our understanding of how society has evolved since 1788. Carefully written, intelligently constructed and offering profound insights, it is a rich set of words that invite contemplation.

Dr Alecia Simmonds is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her first book, Wild Man, won the 2016 Davitt Prize for best nonfiction crime writing. She has been the recipient of prestigious academic grants and her writing has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Arena and Inside Story.

Courting: An Intimate History of Love and the Law

(November 2023)

by Alecia Simmonds

La Trobe University Press

ISBN: 978 176064 214 3

$45.00 (RRP Paperback); 448pp

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