One of the most famous novels ever written about what makes for a happy marriage contains just a single sentence about the wedding of its two main characters. “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters,” Jane Austen writes in “Pride and Prejudice.”
Those “most deserving daughters,” Jane and Lizzy, transition straight into substantive and wonderfully improving marriages, while their younger reprobate sister Lydia gabbles about the guests at her own hasty nuptials, and their mother goes into hysterics about Lydia’s lack of wedding clothes. Austen’s point is clear: what happens on the way to and after the vows and the party is much more important than the wedding itself.
However improving it might be to focus on marriage rather than on weddings, wedding season has come again. And whatever Austen’s tastes and the masterful ends to which she put them, weddings can be the subject of some lovely, thoughtful writing. Every year, I read some of the same books as I prepare to don my strappy sandals and hit the dance floor at my friends’ nuptials as a way to reflect on what weddings mean.
“Little Women” has an honored place on many women’s bookshelves for any number of reasons. In the spring, though, I am always struck by Louisa May Alcott’s account of Meg March’s wedding to John Brooke. Some elements of the scene, including Meg’s request that her handsome neighbor Laurie take a temperance pledge as a wedding gift to her, have aged poorly.
Others are strikingly contemporary. “That is the prettiest wedding I’ve been to for an age, Ned, and I don’t see why, for there wasn’t a bit of style about it,” Sally Moffat, a wealthy friend of Meg’s, observes to her husband on the weigh home, evidence that the status anxiety that the wedding-industrial complex would exploit so successfully was around in 1869.
Alcott’s characters are strong enough to resist it, though. Meg’s wedding is a delightful example of the sort of celebration that is oriented less toward financial display and more toward celebrating the community that brought the couple together and that will protect them as they settle into marriage.
“When Aunt March arrived, she was scandalized to see the bride come running to welcome and lead her in, to find the bridegroom fastening up a garland that had fallen down, and to catch a glimpse of the paternal minister marching upstairs with a grave countenance and a wine bottle under each arm,” Alcott writes.
Meg tells her judgmental aunt: “I’m not a show, Aunty, and no one is coming to stare at me, to criticize my dress, or count the cost of my luncheon. I’m too happy to care what anyone says or thinks, and I’m going to have my little wedding just as I like it.” So she does.
The journey to a “little wedding” just as the bride likes it is the subject of Beverly Cleary’s “Sister of the Bride,” one of the excellent young adult novels the author produced in addition to her children’s chapter books. In that book, Barbara Maclane finds her high school romantic anxieties super-charged when her older sister Rosemary announces her engagement toward the end of her freshman year of college.
The novel, published in 1963, captures the conflict between a do-it-yourself ethos and the industry that has grown up to help couples replicate magazine spreads that plays out on blogs like A Practical Wedding today.
Barbara gets obsessed with the idea that she needs to be engaged on the same timeline as Rosemary, and falls down a rabbit hole of china patterns and wedding colors. Rosemary, influenced by the ideas she has encountered in college, announces her intentions to get married in a tweed suit and register for burlap placemats and hand-thrown pottery. The girls’ grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, gets terribly upset at the idea that Rosemary might not wear a vintage lace veil. And the groom’s parents, in an effort to be helpful, insult the Maclanes’ parents by insinuating that they are poor.
Barbara ultimately gets her most important education in marriage when she goes to help Rosemary set up the apartment where she and her husband will live after their wedding, and where they will serve as landlords. The building is awful, and Barbara is appalled.
“Couldn’t she see?” Barbara wonders. “Couldn’t she see that it was small and ugly and shabby and uncomfortable. The mildew in the bathroom, that awful Murphy bed standing on its head in the closet.”
Rosemary’s energy and excitement transform the apartment, and Barbara begins to understand why her sister’s fiance asked her to marry him. It is not simply the wedding day that matters, though that turns out beautifully. It is the willingness to line garbage cans with newspaper that lasts long after the cake has gone stale and a wedding dress has been worn for the last time.
And then there is J. Courtney Sullivan’s “Commencement,” in which four Smith College graduates reunite four years after graduation for the wedding of Sally — their reunion marks a sort of graduation from their education in adult life. Their coming together, marked by anxieties about each other’s successes and how each is living out her ideas about what it means to be a contemporary woman.
The wedding ends in recrimination and hurt feelings. Sally’s friends cannot help but feel that she is compromising their collective ideals and her dream of medical school by focusing on building a family rather than on advancing her career. But unlike a traditional story structure, in which marriage is an end point, the wedding is not the end in “Commencement.” The novel takes an unfortunate and clunky turn into thriller territory.
But Sullivan makes an important point: The conflicts about womanhood and family that cropped up during the planning of Rosemary Maclane’s wedding are not resolved when the party ends. A wedding is the beginning of marriage, but it is also the beginning of questions about how to be a husband, a wife and a family.