The wedding season is well and truly upon us. I have three weddings this year, two of them in the next few weeks, which has got me thinking about how vow exchanging ceremonies feature in Jane Austen’s novels…
“It was a very proper wedding. The bride was elegantly dressed; the two bridesmaids were duly inferior; her father gave her away; her mother stood with salts in her hand, expecting to be agitated; her aunt tried to cry; and the service was impressively read by Dr. Grant.”
Mansfield Park, Chapter XXI
Weddings in Jane Austen’s time were not that different from the sort of celebrations we are used to today. Some of the elements and features that we immediately recognise (even expect) in a contemporary wedding were already present. The blushing bride, the emotional future mother-in-law and the bridesmaids and their unspoken duty not to upstage the bride have been around for over two-hundred years. Who knew?
Of course, some details were slightly different. For example, the bride’s family was expected to provide “wedding-clothes” for their daughter, which comprised of her wedding dress, new gowns and the linen required to equip her new home. In Northanger Abbey, Mrs Allen says that Miss Drummond (later Mrs Tiney) was so wealthy that “when she married, her father gave her (…) five hundred to buy wedding-clothes.” That is the same as the yearly income of Mrs Dashwood and her daughters in Sense and Sensibility, so it must have been quite the trousseau.
The quantity and quality of a bride’s wedding-clothes were a social marker, and hence Mrs Bennet’s obsession with the matter in Pride and Prejudice, in spite of the circumstances of Lydia and Wickham’s marriage. She instructs her brother to “tell Lydia she shall have as much money she chooses to buy them (wedding clothes)” and even “not to give any directions about her clothes till she has seen me, for she does not know which are the best warehouses.” Too bad that her husband isn’t having any of it.
The Wedding Ceremony
Maria Bertram and Mr Rushworth’s wedding in Mansfield Park is particularly lavish, as it marks the marriage of a Baronet’s daughter and a very wealthy man. Most of the ceremonies during the Regency were a more modest affair, even when those getting married had a generous income. Having said that, the trend for simplicity was not to everyone’s liking. Here’s the delightful passage at the end of Emma, from the point-of-view of self-important Mrs Elton. It describes Mr Knightley’s and Emma’s wedding, and the subtext tells us what Austen thought of extravagant ceremonies:
“The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.-‘Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!-Selina would stare when she heard of it’.”
Emma, Chapter 55
Although weddings were not necessarily followed by a celebratory meal, the wedding cake was the centrepiece of any Regency wedding. The recipe made for a rich and dense confection, packed with dried fruit and a fair bit of alcohol, not unlike the Christmas pudding already popular at the time. The wedding cake was cut and distributed to friends, family and neighbours, and would keep for ages, if not consumed immediately after the ceremony.
In Emma, while at Mr and Mrs Weston’s wedding, Mr Woodhouse consults with Mr Perry about the digestibility of the wedding cake. “Mr Woodhouse’s delicate stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself”, so he is pleased when the apothecary admits that “wedding-cake might certainly disagree with many—perhaps with most people, unless taken moderately.” Mr Woodhouse tries to convince guests not to consume the sweet, but in spite of his best efforts, all the wedding cake is eaten up, and even the little Perrys are rumoured to have eaten some!
The New Carriage
Last but definitely not least, wealthy newlyweds would sometimes purchase a new carriage for the wedding, marking in yet another way their new status as a married couple. In Persuasion, upon marrying Captain Wentworth, Anne Elliot becomes “the mistress of a very pretty landaulette.” The lack of a brand new carriage is precisely the only faux pas in the Rushworths’ wedding. This is the sentence that follows the paragraph of Mansfield Park quoted above:
“Nothing could be objected to when it came under the discussion of the neighbourhood, except that the carriage which conveyed the bride and bridegroom and Julia from the church-door to Sotherton was the same chaise which Mr Rushworth had used for a twelvemonth before. In everything else, the etiquette of the day might stand the strictest investigation.”
Mansfield Park, chapter XXI
Given Jane Austen’s eye for detail, and the combined wealth of the bride and groom, this is no small detail. I see it as the author’s subtle way to convey that the Rushworths’ marriage was doomed from the start.
If you have any weddings coming up this year, enjoy the celebrations, but remember what is expected of a good wedding guest. As Miss Woodhouse puts it when discussing the Westons’ nuptials in the opening chapter of Emma: “we all behaved charmingly. Every body was punctual, every body in their best looks; not a tear, and hardly a long face to be seen.” I intend to make Emma’s words my guide in the next few weeks.
Which is your favourite Austen wedding and why?