In the age of Tinder and speed dating, swiping left and ghosting, what obligations do we have to those we date – or court, as it was once perhaps more ominously called? This is the question that underlies Courting: An intimate history of love and the law, Alecia Simmonds’s fascinating historical study of jilted lovers who took legal action to seek redress for rejection and heartache.
Today, as Simmonds writes, “the law tends to assume that intimates don’t intend to create legal relations”, but until 1976 Australians were entitled to sue suitors who abandoned them, under breach of promise of marriage provisions in the Marriage Act, with the possibility to seek redress for everything from the cost of a glory box to emotional injury. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the attendant shame of public exposure, it was predominantly working-class women who resorted to such claims. As a result of women’s entry into the workplace and their growing independence, as well as the extrication of love from the social contract of marriage, “responsibility for romantic injury was individualised and ... trivialised”. Simmonds asks: “What did we lose in the shift from the legal condemnation of deceit in relationships to psychological exhortations to resilience?”
This question lingers as the background for a series of case studies of breach of promise actions that span from the colonial era to the 20th century and draw from a rich archive of court transcripts and evidence, including love letters.
The book is far from a dry history, as Simmonds brings each litigant and court case to life. As we get to know Sarah Cox – of Cox v Payne, 1825 – whose father sues his daughter’s caddish suitor for his own wounded feelings, we are even invited to imagine the “pleasing clop” of a juror’s boots on the wooden floors of the makeshift courtroom. Each story comes with the innate allure of gossip and scandal, and Simmonds cannily withholds what happens until the end: is the case won or lost?
As a study focused on subjects forgotten in mainstream history, this book is testament to the captivating appeal of the lives of everyday individuals, but also of the past itself, exposed as both familiar and foreign. Simmonds goes down a few rabbit holes, as when she pursues the backstory of a Parsi litigant, but a reader might happily follow. I can’t remember the last time I read a book about love or, indeed, Australian history that was this fulfilling, not only as a work of historiography but also as a prompt for reflecting on the present.
Black Inc, 448pp, $45
Black Inc is a Schwartz company
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Courting: An intimate history of love and the law".
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