Brides, Grooms and Weddings in Jane Austen’s Novels

Brides, Grooms and Weddings in Jane Austen’s Novels

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…

The Tradition

“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?

 

The Wedding-Clothes

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

The Wedding Cake

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.

 

The Perfect Wedding Guest

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?

 

 

12 Responses to Brides, Grooms and Weddings in Jane Austen’s Novels

  1. My favourite is Lydia’s – such a “patched-up business”, with Mrs Gardiner trying to encourage Lydia to be more sensible, and Lydia listening, not caring one hoot! She had got her man, and will show off her ring with pride to all and sundry. Lydia the bold! And Wickham still as smarmy as ever. Yres, Austen at ther best.

    • I find Lydia at times hilarious, at times annoying, but she sure never leaves me indifferent! Austen certainly knew how to build a strong, unique character, that’s for sure. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. D&E of course… as the completion of a terrible beginning. Second would be Anne Elliot and her Captain as the fulfillment of their best hope. I love happy endings.

    So many of the Regency traditions translate or are similar to what we did back in the day. Wedding clothes, I suppose, could be what girls called their Hope Chest in my day. My family and I worked on that for years. It was handmade items that I sewed myself. Pillowcases where I had sewn [I was learning to embroidery] designs, hand woven pot holders, linens, etc. When I was old enough to start work, I added pots and pans, a china set, silverware, etc. I had everything I needed to set up house. Of course, the wedding showers helped. The wedding breakfast translated to the wedding reception with the wedding cake of course. Over time, so many things change and yet, remain the same… we just call it something else. Thanks for this delightful post.

    • D&E show that change is definitely possible in life! I love the end of Persuasion, it’s rather lovely, isn’t it?
      Thanks for your explanation of the Hope Chest. It sounds very much like an evolution of the Regency’s Wedding-Clothes. I love your descriptions, such a lovely way to begin a collection of items for your new life as a married woman! And I agree, many things remain the same at their core…

  3. My favs would be Elizabeth and Darcy. I like Colonel Brandon’s wedding with Marianne as well. Great post!

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