Sunday, November 27, 2011

November 20, 1884 --- The Beauty and the Peer

A celebrated breach-of-promise trial ends with the highest settlement of its kind.

Arthur Henry Cairns, Viscount Garmoyle, was 22 in 1883 and a young officer in training at Sandhurst.  His father was the Lord Chancellor, a brilliant but dour Ulsterman lawyer who gave speeches that “flowed like water from a glacier.”  Lord Cairns also held a great antipathy for the "Stage."  Thus the news that Garmoyle was engaged to an actress did not overly please him.  Miss Emily Finney, a coal merchant’s daughter, had acted in Gilbert & Sullivan productions under the stage name of May Fortescue.  A society paper described the young pair as “quite happy and desirably spooney.”  The engagement was publicly announced but, in February 1884, it was just as publicly called off.

Literally within minutes of the latter announcement, Frank Harris, editor of the Evening News was closeted with the jilted bride-to-be and her story was headlined “The Beauty and the Peer.”  Miss Fortescue placed all of the blame on Garmoyle’s father who considered the theatre “the ante-chamber of hell.”  She also coolly announced her intentions to seek the staggering sum of £30,000 damages for her “breach of promise.”

Efforts to privately settle the matter failed and the case of Finney v Cairns had been eagerly awaited.  Sir Charles Russell, for Miss Finney, said there was no argument: a promise had been made, accepted and broken.  Lord Garmoyle had pressed her to leave the stage, hoping to please his pater who thought the profession was “ungodly and profane.”  Having made that promise, she was then affectionately received by her future in-laws.  But the engagement did not go smoothly.  Earl Cairns urged the couple to delay the wedding, to allow Garmoyle to finish his military training.  Garmoyle suddenly cancelled a New Year’s visit.  And then, the “Dear Emily” letter arrived.  While professing his “deepest love and greatest admiration,” Garmoyle had decided to break off the engagement “acting in the interests and on suggestions of others.”  Inside the courtroom and out, the great weight of public sentiment was on the side of this disappointed young woman.

Sir Henry James, for the Viscount, disputes none of this and adds only that his client wishes to make plain that the unhappy decision was in no way based on Miss Finney’s conduct for she had behaved at all times in a manner becoming “a high-minded English gentlewoman.”  He also revealed that the Cairns family had offered and Miss Finney had agreed to accept damages in the amount of £10,000.

The size of the settlement, coupled with the fact that the Cairns were not particularly wealthy by the standards of the peerage, drew much criticism from the more thoughtful papers.  The Spectator wondered what a young woman jilted someday by a sprig of the Rothschilds might require for her solace.  The Telegraph took a more economical view: The Earldom of Cairns is one of quite recent creation, so that the young lady would not lose so much as if she had been matrimonially allied to our “old nobility.” Still, “an Earl’s an Earl for all that.”

Ironically, within six months of the trial, Earl Cairns died.  The new Earl, the erstwhile Viscount, now free, presumably, to marry Miss Finney, and get some of his money back, made no efforts in that direction.  Instead, he was jilted by an American heiress and eventually married a clergyman’s daughter.  Unfortunately, Earl Cairns (Garmoyle) died during the flu epidemic in January of 1890.  He was 29, left no children, and the title passed to his brother.

The Viscount (2nd Lord Cairns) from Vanity Fair

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