+ He breaks off the engagement. She rebounds quickly. He asks for the ring back; she walks away. Now they’re both annoyed. Who’s right?
Engagements have, historically, been a big deal — see John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman for one of my favorite fictional takes on the issue — in part because it was understood that women who had held out until that point might at last consent to have sex with their fiances. The ring was supposed to act as her insurance policy; if he played false with her, she got, at least, to keep it. She could also sue for “breach of promise,” or, as it should have been called, “breach of hymen.”
Some of the original theory behind this tort was based on the idea that a woman would be more likely to give up her virginity to a man if she had his promise to marry her. If he seduced her and subsequently refused marriage, her lack of virginity would make her future search for a suitable husband more difficult or even impossible.
However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main factors were compensation for the denial of the woman’s expectations of becoming “established” in a household (supported by her husband’s wealth) and possible damage to her social reputation, since there were a number of ways that the reputation of a young never-married woman of the genteel classes could be damaged by a broken engagement, or an apparent period of intimacy which did not end in a publicly announced engagement, even if few people seriously thought that she had lost her virginity. She might be viewed as having broken the code of maidenly modesty of the period by imprudently offering up her affections without having had a firm assurance of future marriage.