In one state after another, judges are being asked to rule on whether ladies whose engagements are broken are legally required to give back the engagement rings to those cads they once agreed to marry.
There are several things about this development that Miss Manners doesn't understand:1. Why are the courts involved in this question at all, when there has always been an etiquette rule on the books requiring that the ring must be returned when the engagement is - for whatever reason - defunct?
2. Why would a lady want to keep a token symbolizing love that has proved false?
3. Especially if she has been jilted, why would a lady forgo one of the grand gestures of all times - flinging the ring back into the face of the despised lover?
4. How can Miss Manners be so naive?
To answer the last question first, Miss Manners chooses to be naive. That is because naive is the least unflattering characterization now used for people like her - people who believe that personal conduct might be guided by something other than financial advantage.
Everyone else thinks it stupid for a lady who has gotten hold of a diamond to allow it out of her grasp unless the strong arm of the law comes and pries it away from her.
But Miss Manners is not so naive as to believe that disappointed brides have no care for their own dignity. Rather, she is afraid that they believe that their hope of salvaging dignity from this humiliating situation is to inflict whatever financial damage they can (which is the answer to the third question). And since breach-of-promise laws have gone out of fashion, they take what is at hand, so to speak (and that is the answer to the second).
Sometimes this is justified as recouping what has been spent on wedding preparations, and is invoked even when the engagement has been broken by the ring-wearer. More often, it is seen as compensation for emotional distress. Whether the charge is disillusionment or desertion, there is a punitive element.
"I deserve it," is the phrase the ladies in question often use.
Probably not, as it turns out. The courts are ruling otherwise. The comparison being made - still in financial terms - is to the down payment on a house; when the deal is called off, the payment is returned.
This reasoning brings Miss Manners to that troubling first question: Do we really want the law to enforce engagements? Of course, everyone expects the law to make up for all of life's disappointments. Nevertheless, a broken engagement, however painful, is one less broken marriage. Miss Manners does not defend heart-breakers; she only wants to protect the innocent from marrying them.
And she does want to protect the dignity of the wounded.
That is why she doesn't want them to furnish proof that they are so grasping that the symbolism of an engagement ring has entirely escaped them, and they see nothing but its monetary value.
What kind of punishment is it to show a cad that he was justified?
Dear Miss Manners: The very evening I read that you stated that a gentleman must remove his gloves before eating or drinking, we went to see "Amistad." Toward the end of the movie there is a banquet scene where all of the gentlemen are wearing gloves while they are eating and drinking.
Did the moviemakers goof? Why am I so thrilled to have caught them in such a gaffe?
Gentle reader: Goof-catching is a popular sport, and Miss Manners is pleased to add to its enjoyment. She likes to think of it as a stimulus to education.
But personally, she has long since wearied of finding etiquette errors and anachronisms in costume drama, either in the movies or on stage. It is too easy. The costumes and settings may be meticulously researched, but it never seems to occur to those dramatizing the past that times existed - as recently as a generation ago - when everyone in the society knew how to handle gloves, handkerchiefs and last names.