Austen Authors’ culmination to the year long celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice was the wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy as well as Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley. My small contribution to the effort was this post on the traditions of a Regency wedding.
Good gracious! Lord bless me! Only think! Dear me! Mr. Darcy!
And so began the planning for the double wedding of Mrs. Bennet’s two most deserving daughters. After the initial shock of learning that Lizzy would be marrying Mr. Darcy with his 10,000 a year and the possibility of a special license there is little doubt that foremost in her mind were the wedding clothes.
The marriages of her two oldest children to two of England’s most eligible bachelors would have put Mrs. Bennet over the moon and in a mood to plan an event to rival a royal wedding. As for the gowns it is clear that her preference would be specially made, elaborate white gowns, not the blue of the middle classes. And while Jane and Elizabeth would have objected to something as ostentatious or extravagant as silk and satin they would have conceded to specially made gowns of fine white muslin or lawn, perhaps embellished with white on white embroidery. As Jane and Elizabeth had their feet planted firmly on the ground, they would have chosen dresses that could be used after the wedding.
White was used not to represent the bride’s purity—as Austen said in P&P, “loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; one false step involves her in endless ruin…”— virginity was assumed; white was the color of celebration and certainly Jane and Elizabeth would want to celebrate their marriages.
It isn’t a stretch to assume Mrs. Bennet would have wanted her girls to wear Mechlin lace veils. Originally veils were meant to hide the bride from evil spirits but by the 19th century they served no useful purpose. The eldest Bennet daughters would be opposed to the extravagance of Mechlin lace. No doubt they felt that bonnets would be sufficient, however, once again in the spirit of celebration they might have agreed to drape netting over their bonnets in deference to God and to make their mother happy. So Jane and Elizabeth would have worn white gowns, bonnets with veils, gloves and white satin slippers.
How our grooms would dress for their Regency wedding was, of course, a direct result of Beau Brumell’s style which became the standard in formal wear the world over. It would start with a white shirt in either linen or muslin and black or buff breeches buckled just below the knee. Natural silk stockings were set off by black pumps as boots were only for day wear so not considered formal. A black cut-away or swallowtail coat with self-covered buttons was left open to show off the waistcoat which could have been black but for their wedding certainly Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley would have worn white made of marcella for a quilted look. A white silk cravat for both of our grooms would have completed the ensemble.
Jewelry for bride and groom was a minor consideration. The bride might wear a lovelier, such as a cross on a necklace. The groom would probably wear a watch and fob and possibly, particularly in the case of Mr. Darcy, a signet ring. Both would, during the ceremony give their brides a ring but it would not be an exchange for men did not wear wedding rings.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged” J that the wedding ring was a sign of ownership but the circle has always meant eternity as far back as the Egyptians and Romans. It represented the sun and the moon to many civilizations. By the late 18th century the Church of England had made it a requirement during a wedding ceremony. The groom must give his bride a ring as a symbol of love and devotion. The Church also required the reading of the banns for three consecutive weeks which delayed weddings for a month or more. In that case a groom might give his intended a promise gift, like a ring, as a sign of his commitment. I can imagine Mr. Darcy presenting Elizabeth with such a ring, perhaps with a diamond to represent his indestructible love. Mr. Bingley might do the same but give Jane a ruby set in gold because the ruby represents the heart. Both gentlemen would give their brides a gold wedding band to show their never ending love.
Weddings as events were not the huge, over-the-top festivities of today. The wedding was simply the ceremony that solidified the marriage contract. Even in cases like Jane and Elizabeth who had true love matches, only family and closest friends would be invited. The invitation would not have been printed or engraved but hand written by the bride or her attendant.
It was traditional, as it is today, for a bride to have an attendant. Often a favorite sister, something Jane and Elizabeth would be unable to do for each other. However, for Elizabeth, I believe, her first and only choice would be Georgiana Darcy.
Jane’s decision was a bit more complex. The logical choice was Caroline Bingley but Caroline was party to Darcy’s attempt to separate Charles and Jane and had been very unpleasant when they met in London. Although Mr. Darcy apologized for his presumption and interference in the scheme; Caroline never did. But Jane’s sweet and gentle nature would never have allowed resentment to over-power her love for Charles and asking Caroline would be a compliment to him.
Now, whether Caroline would have accepted is another question entirely. Having to attend a woman she felt was beneath her brother and to be involved in the wedding of the man she wanted to marry would have been more than difficult for her. And as we know she did not hide her feelings. But Austen tells us that “Miss Bingley, although deeply mortified by Darcy’s marriage thought it advisable to retain the right of visiting at Pemberley so dropped all her resentment.” Keeping that in mind we can guess that, if asked, Caroline would have attended Jane.
As to the wedding guests, immediate family would have been present and few others. As I mentioned earlier weddings were not particularly important events, it was the marriage that was important. Obviously parents and siblings attended but after that there are a few obvious choices for the wedding of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet to Fitzwilliam Darcy and Charles Bingley.
Jane Austen tells us that Elizabeth and Darcy really loved the Gardiners and were on the most intimate terms with them, so they very likely attended the wedding. We know, too that the Collinses were at Lucas Lodge to avoid Rosings Park and the exceedingly angry Lady Catherine. And we know that Elizabeth was particularly happy to have her closest friend with her at such a happy time so can assume that Charlotte and Mr. Collins (a cousin of Mr. Bennet) also attended the wedding. If Col. Fitzwilliam was in the country he certainly would have attended. Mr. and Mrs. Hurst and Caroline, staying at Netherfield would have been in attendance.
Jane also says that Mr. Darcy was so offended by Lady Catherine’s abusive language when she replied to his announcement that it was some time and Elizabeth’s persuasion that finally prevailed upon him to reconcile with his aunt, so we know that she did not attend the wedding and certainly Darcy’s cousin, Anne, would not have attended without her mother.
Like the wedding veil, the bouquet was meant to keep evil spirits at bay and was originally garlic and dill (the smell I assume is what kept those pesky spirits away); by the Georgian and Regency eras brides carried bouquets strictly because of tradition and had gone from odious to fragrant. Since florists weren’t the norm for wedding flowers, bridal bouquets were chosen from what was available in the garden. For Jane and Elizabeth I’m hoping that there might still have been some pink blooms on the rose vine that climbed over the kitchen door and maybe even the last of the bush roses. Perhaps the mild weather had allowed the violas to stay in bloom and the tiny purple and yellow blossoms might be used as filler. If no flowers remained in the mid-November garden a simple nosegay of lavender would suffice. The other option might conceivably have been that Mr. Darcy had flowers sent from his greenhouses. However, Pemberley was about 180 miles from Longbourn and cut flowers transported that distance might not arrive in the best condition.
I have been unable to find any specifics on the bridal processional for Georgian or Regency weddings; however in the country the wedding processional seems to have consisted of most of the town’s people walking with the wedding party through the village. When they reached the church the bride and groom met at the door and walked in together. They were followed by those attending the ceremony. A father walking the bride down the aisle and ‘giving her away’ is a relatively modern element. In medieval time, before the bride and groom walked down the aisle, the father of the bride gave the groom one of his daughter’s shoes as a symbol that he was turning over responsibility to the man.
After the ceremony the bridge and groom would sign the parish registry and then go to the home of the bride’s parents for the wedding breakfast. In the middle of the table as centerpiece and focal point was the wedding cake.
The compliments of his neighbours were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an even; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all eat up. from Emma
So we know Austen considered cake an integral part of the wedding celebration. Cake, in fact, had been a wedding tradition for centuries, but not how you might imagine. Small pieces of cake were given to guests who broke them over the heads of the bride and groom or threw the crumbs at them, representing fertility, as rice and birdseed did in the 20th century. By the 18th century throwing the cake had stopped but the tradition of cake was so entrenched that it was served to the guests to eat. Sometimes a very large cake was made, not sure what it was supposed to represent but I found a recipe that called for 20 pounds of flour… that’s a big cake. If these huge cakes were common I suspect it is the reason tiered cakes were invented. The smaller layers make it easier to handle but still created a large cake. Before the invention of the tiered cake, the large cake was cut into small pieces for ease of serving. At some point in time a French chef decided to stack the small pieces into a mound, glaze with sugar and milk and decorate with marzipan flowers rather than having unadorned cake on the wedding table.
It isn’t difficult to believe that Mrs. Bennet would have acquired the services of a French chef to do just that in her continuing attempt to impress the grooms and their families.
And so it begins, their lives together as husbands and wives.