While I read a lot of non-fiction books about the Victorian era, I spend as much time, if not more, in fiction contemporary to the era, Dickens, Meredith, Hardy, Eliot (etc., etc., etc.) Here I get a real feel for what it was like to live then. I get the atmosphere and the nuances of language and setting that it’s hard to get in non-fiction (with perhaps the notable exception of Judith Flanders and Gillian Gill, who seem to write their non fiction works as engagingly as the best authors write their prose.)
The sad fact is, however, that when it comes to writing weddings, fiction is an infertile crop. There’s nothing there. Weddings are mentioned briefly, or described as something that took place. We hear of the befores and afters, and then there is a blank … wherein we are meant, I suppose, to assume that the honeymoon took place and the maiden emerges a bride like a butterfly from it’s cocoon. But I wonder how often that was truly the case, particularly when women, by and large, were ignorant of the facts of life, while men were oft times all too familiar. Of course it is the common argument that a woman having grown up on a farm understood the laws of reproductive science. This may or may not be true. It was certainly not the case for Hardy’s Tess, and I have to wonder if the average Victorian maiden would even have supposed that the way of animals was the way of humans when the lights were out and clothes were off. Or, in Tess’s case … well, you get my point.
A young woman, dreaming of married life, preparing herself for it, turned to the many etiquette guides available and read advice columns on how to keep a house and how to be a good wife in all matters publicly observable. But on the actual ceremonies (formal and informal) of being married, here again we find a lack of useful information. And, more often than not, these etiquette guides provide a great deal of room for argument. They are not, after all, records of what people did, but a guideline of what the ideal situation should call for.
So then, what exactly was involved in the average Victorian wedding? If, indeed, there ever existed such a thing.
From the point of proposal, the parents granting consent, a date being set, legal and financial matters having been decided, the first thing to be done was to announce the intentions of the couple to the local clergyman. According to The Marriage Act of 1753, the couple must have the announcement published (by banns) for three consecutive weeks. If the couple lived in different parishes, the banns must be read in both parishes. The marriage must be performed by an Anglican clergyman and both parties, unless given consent by a parent or guardian, must be 21. (Of course the laws changed throughout Victoria’s reign, and by mid-century there were allowances for other faiths, as well as for secular marriages. I should consequently note that this is not a concise guide, simply an idea of what it might have been like for the ‘average’ couple. If, once again, there was such a thing.)
In Regency literature we often hear of ‘special licenses’ which were rather expensive and implied a certain amount of haste to the union. They were also so prohibitively expensive that they were reserved for those of high rank and connection. A respectable Victorian, however, had a third option. An ordinary license, at a cost of £2 2s 6d. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, (which is an entertaining read, if not actually very scholarly, as it lumps the Victorian and the Regency eras together) quotes a mid-century etiquette manual as saying: ‘Marriage by banns is confined to the poorest classes, and a license is generally obtained by those who aspire to the “habits of good society.’
There is much more to all this than I have time for here, but for a more detailed outline of the laws governing marriage look here and here. And also at Jennifer Phegley’s thoroughly concise book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England. (I’ve also relied heavily on Mary Lyndon Shanley’s Feminism, Marriage and the Law in Victorian England, and on the a reprinted book The Married Women’s Property Act, 1882)
In an age where waste was thing to be avoided at all costs, the bride’s dress was either chosen from the very best of that which she already owned, or it was bought special with the idea of being worn again. Victoria herself set the trend for wearing white at her own wedding in 1840, but it was hardly a universal custom even fifty years later.
The service, assuming it was an Anglican service, was read from the Book of Common Prayer. (For an example of how just such a wedding might play out, see here. WARNING, SHAMELESS PLUG.)
And at last we come to that crucial element: the kissing of the bride! Did it, or did it not take place within a Victorian wedding ceremony? Well, the jury is out, and believe me, I’ve done my research. The following is from the 1873 publication, The Bazaar Book of Decorum. The Care of the Person, Manners, Etiquette, and Ceremonials.
This is one of those cases where I find the etiquette guide rife with opportunity for argument. For example, as it states, in 1873, “the question sometimes arises.” So evidently there was room for this question to be asked. Is it done, or isn’t it? Which implies some see it done, or hear of it’s being done, (wish for it to be done?) have wondered if it should be done, and from other sources have heard that it is a practice to be avoided. To me this only proves that it is hardly an established rule. And the idea that the matter should be discussed beforehand leaves me simply reeling with ideas for plots. Can you imagine it? Cecil asks of Lucy, “My dear, do you think I might be allowed a kiss at the end of the ceremony?” “Why Cecil, upon the completion of the ceremony I am yours to do with what you will.” Ok, yes, that’s just my mind running rampant on the subject, (and perhaps A Room With a View does not provide the best characters from which to draw. The story, I’m sure, would be quite different were it George rather than Cecil, who’d no doubt take advantage of an impulsive moment, whether Lucy, or the crowd, objected or not. [And yes, I am aware Forrester is Edwardian and not Victorian.]) At any rate, the mere suggestion that there should be a discussion beforehand, and that the bride might be disappointed, only leads me to suspect there were as many ceremonial kisses as there were not.
I also find it interesting that the example of the Queen was used. (Note that the author did not cite said ‘portentous authority’.) The Queen was married some thirty years previous. Did that mean, then, that Victoria’s example was only just catching on if the question was still being raised in 1873? Neither was Victoria the prude we like to think her. Her marriage was as much a marriage of state as it was romance. Also they were neither of them showy people when it came to their own sentiments. It’s also noted that her uncle (Augustus, Duke of Sussex) kissed her. Not entirely sure he’s a reliable foundation upon which to set a pattern of appropriate social behavior, but… ok.
And what of the honeymoon? Well, literature is simply bursting with examples of these post-wedding conjugal trips, are they not? Er…maybe not. Once again, turning to Jennifer Phegley, she cites a rather cynical work entitled, How to Be Happy Though Married.
Not a very pretty picture, is it? And it is not so difficult for me to imagine what it was like for a very innocent wife to be suddenly educated in the ways of married life. For the innocent, I imagine it was rather a shock. For the not so innocent, it might actually be traumatic, particularly if the man is inexperienced with inexperienced women, or inexperienced himself, or not quite certain how to merge his carnal impulses, heretofore deemed evil, with those of wholesome family life.
Yes, the Victorians were complicated. Roll your eyes if you will, but I relate to them, and I admire them in my way.
But here, perhaps, is where it might be best to take the Queen’s example, after all. She may not have taken much of a wedding holiday, but she made the most of her time. From what we understand of her now, related in Gillian Gill’s gripping We Two, she was no shrinking violet when it came to matters of conjugal romance. In fact she might very well have taken the lead. At least we understand, from trustworthy accounts, and by the number of children they had (which she would rather not have had) they had a very healthy love life.
Personally speaking, I like to think that the general silence on the subject was out of respect of the union and not because they were all fumbling around in their bed clothes.
But then I’m an idealist.
So, what do I do when there is such a lack of reliable information to draw from? How do I write these weddings and newlywed scenes? All I can do is try to strike a balance between what I deem would be appropriate to the situation and what my modern day readers would want. And really . . . a wedding without a kiss? Are you kidding me?
V.R. Christensen is the author of Of Moths & Butterflies, and the soon to be published Cry of the Peacock. For more information about her work, including purchase links and reviews, please visit www.vrchristensen.com