I just love it when a romantic story ends with a wedding. And few stories are as romantic as Pride and Prejudice. But where’s the wedding at the end?
You see, during quarantine, I decided to copy Jennifer Ehle and re-read Pride and Prejudice. (You may remember Ehle as the actress who played Elizabeth Bennet, opposite Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.)
Reading Pride and Prejudice helped me cope with lockdown. Even though I’m very familiar with the story, Jane Austen’s prose was delightful. No movie can really do her words full justice.
But when I got to the end of the book, I confess I felt a little cheated. Though we know Darcy proposes again to Lizzie and she accepts him at last, we don’t get a description of their wedding. I was surprised – I guess that in the years since I’d read the book I’d forgotten the story didn’t end with an actual marriage ceremony.
You can pardon my confusion - the final scene in the BBC mini-series is a joyous double wedding for the two Bennet sisters. So, we know what the BBC thinks a Darcy-Bennet wedding would’ve looked like – the whole village turned out, and there were flowers and festivities galore.
But what does history say? A little research paints a different picture.
During the Regency era weddings were simple, even plain affairs. Unless you were royalty, any kind of elaborate display or unnecessary additions to the ceremony was considered out-of-date or in poor taste.
We get an idea of what a genteel wedding might have looked like from a description Jane Austen’s niece Caroline received from her half-sister Anna of a family wedding in 1814.
The simple church ceremony had no guests, only immediate family. The women had arrived in carriages; the men walked to the church. There were no flowers adorning the altar, nothing special to mark the occasion. The simplicity extended to breakfast afterward, which was only for the wedding party and family.
So, here are some characteristics of a typical Regency-era English wedding:
When: Any month of the year except during Lent
Where: In a church or the chapel of a manor house
The groom would wear his regular formal dress clothes in fashionable colors, like blue, but not black. Like the face-covering veil, black for male wedding attire didn’t come into fashion until later.
Time: By law, church wedding ceremonies took place between 8 a.m. and noon.
Refreshments: Because the weddings were held so early, they were often followed by a wedding breakfast (it was called breakfast even if it was served at noon). During the Regency, this would have been a full-course meal with a brides-cake (the cake wasn’t called a wedding cake till the Victorian era).
In Anna’s account of the 1814 wedding she attended, the wedding breakfast included bread (buttered toast and hot rolls), with meat (tongue) and ham and eggs. There were a few special touches – chocolate (cocoa) at one end of the table, and, of course, a cake. Like everything else associated with weddings, the wedding breakfast got more elaborate during the Victorian age.
Pre-wedding red tape: As a result of Lord Hardwicke’s Act of 1753, intended to prevent clandestine marriages involving minors, couples wishing to marry in England had to follow a lengthy procedure. Of course, if you were in a hurry you could skip the red tape and elope to Scotland, which was exempt from the Act, and get a same-day marriage with very few questions asked.
In England, however, there were two typical routes an engaged couple had to follow if they wanted to get married:
The most common way of preparing for marriage was to have banns read. Banns were a published announcement of a couple's intent to marry. Banns were read during church services on three successive weeks prior to the ceremony. If the prospective bride and groom were from different parishes banns were published in the home church of each. Parents needed to give permission for banns to be published for their minor children under the age of 21.
Publishing banns was free. However, besides taking time, this method gave the public an opportunity to object to or even prevent a marriage, so some couples decided to pay extra for privacy and/or to speed things along.
With a special license, you could forego having banns published and the ceremony could take place right away. A couple with a special license could also choose where and when to get married, instead of having to confine themselves to a morning wedding in a church.
A special license could be obtained only from the Archbishop of Canterbury or his representative. So, you had to have connections and money to obtain a special license, which gave special licenses a certain cachet. Because of its association with the upper classes, a special license is the first thing the social-climbing Mrs. Bennet thinks of when her daughter announces her acceptance of the wealthy Mr. Darcy’s proposal:
“My dearest child,” she cried. “I can think of nothing else! Ten thousand a year and very likely more! ‘Tis as good as a lord! And a special license. You must and shall be married by special license!”
In the final chapter of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen glosses over the wedding of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Instead, the end of the book touches on Elizabeth’s life at Pemberly with her husband after their marriage – how she dealt with her sister Lydia and Wickman’s requests for money, and how Lady Catherine de Bourgh finally got over her indignation to accept her nephew’s chosen wife.
Though she wrote romantic novels, I don’t think Austen cared much about weddings. She certainly doesn't describe them in detail. Like others of her time, she probably saw a wedding as a means to an end. And I doubt she could have imagined the elaborate and expensive weddings that are popular today, much less the lucrative industry, including photographers, dressmakers, florists, caterers, and tourism, that's been built around weddings.
What type of wedding might Austen have preferred for herself if she’d married? It's impossible to know for sure, but perhaps we can get an idea by reading about the wedding she creates for Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley at the very end of Emma:
“The wedding was very much like other weddings, when the parties have no taste for 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.’ But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”
I have to hand it to Jane; I think a simple ritual, witnessed by a “small band of true friends” to celebrate a happy union is a pretty good description of a perfect wedding in any era.
- Day, Malcolm, Voices from the World of Jane Austen, a David & Charles Book, David & Charles Limited, 2006
- Adkins, Roy and Leslie, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, 2013
- Hughes, Kristine, Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1998
- Laudermilk, Sharon and Hamlin, Teresa, The Regency Companion, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London, 1989
- Pool, Daniel, What Jane Austen ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Touchstone, Simon & Shuster, Inc., New York, 1993
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