Fancy a Royal Wedding?
I love a good wedding, so of course, I’m excited as the next person about the upcoming royal wedding. What sort of dress and flowers will the famously fashionable Meghan Markle choose? How will the couple arrange the service? Which traditions will they keep, which will they alter, and which will they throw out of the window? My sister and I found ourselves sniggering over a rather alarmist headline that proclaimed “Meghan Markle to break centuries oldtradition at her wedding”. What shocking thing do you think Markle was rumoured to be about to do at her wedding? Run down the aisle naked? Only speak. This woman, whose career so far has built on her eloquence and performance skills, has chosen to make a speech at her own wedding. It’s hardly a shocker. Lots of brides do it. Looking at the article we decided that, while Markle is very lucky to have found someone she loves and wants to spend the rest of her life with, she’s also very unlucky that it’s someone whose marriage provokes this level of insanity. Well, at least that’s what we thought until my sister got married, and then we realised that exercising choice over anything but flowers can get up a lot of people’s noses.
A few weeks ago – in between thinking about weddings – I came across a rather good abusive rant in a book I was reading: ‘Thy dullness I hate; thy slobbering abhor; thy silly twattling I despise. And mend all these or I shall go near to despise thee too.’ It has now become one of my lifetime ambitions to use the word ‘twattling’ in conversation. After looking it up in the OED I found an even better, related, early modern insult ‘twattle-basket’, to be used on someone who talks too much. This excellent quote comes out of the mouth of a country lass called Fancy, as she roundly abuses her boyfriend. Unfortunately, in this instance she takes it too far, and then regrets causing his hasty retreat. The scene is observed by Pamphilia and the other protagonists of Mary Wroth’s 17th Century romance, The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (Part II, Book I, p.36). The queens and kings, and knights and ladies of Pamphilia’s posse are keen to know more of the young woman’s story, so they ask her to tell it.
The maid then, with a kind of country-like curtsy, began thus: “When I was about fourteen years of age, great ladies,” said she, “I was laid to by many pretty fellows, and mainly sued to, and as fine folks say, courted. Some spoke love, some kindness, some (but fewest of them) spoke marriage. Yet this man only spoke that, and that to my thoughts was such a bond, as though I liked the man best of any, yet his way was too strict a business for me to undergo: marriage, the bondage to sweet freedom. So that troubled me shrewdly, and only was the bar in his way, yet I resolved to be honest, but me thought a little mirth was better than ties at home, bawling brats, months keepings-in, housewifery, and dairies, and a pudder of all homemade troubles.” (Urania II, p.38)
The country lass, Fancy, continues to extoll the values of a single life, namely that she may wear pretty things, accept gifts from any man, be free from explaining herself to a husband, and be free of the need to prove her chastity. While the girl does come across as rather mercenary, and is condemned by the heroines of Wroth’s romance, I imagine that many a modern reader would sympathise with her. Her fears of losing her freedom, the months of confinement that were traditional for early modern births (‘keepings-in’), and the children that follow them, make marriage unappealing to her. These misgivings seem entirely reasonable, what’s more, she follows the rather brilliant ‘twattling’ with the equally pleasing word ‘pudder’. As a noun, ‘pudder’ means ‘puddle’, but as a verb, it means to poke about in, or mess with, which I think gives this puddle evocatively chaotic and homely connotations. Her choice to resist marriage is totally rational, as she doesn’t want to get mired in the trappings of marriage, which she sees as ‘a pudder of all homemade troubles’. However, as an early modern woman (even as a fictional one) Fancy cannot sustain this lifestyle for ever. Because women in this period were dependent on men for wealth, security, and protection, the young woman can see a need to marry. She reasons that
age must inherit that treasure beauty and youth possessed. How then? A husband will cherish age, as in himself he must have it. A fine house, a good fire, a soft bed in winter, no wants, good clothes for all seasons, handsome discourse with a reasonable husband, children to pass away the time withal: these are special good, and all these a happy wife hath to comfort her in her years. (Urania II, pp.38-39)
Though she finds the prospect distasteful, in order to have any kind of security, and be safe and comfortable in her old age, Fancy must marry, and soon, before she loses her looks. This idea comes up a lot in Shakespeare’s plays. What’s more, the character of Fancy is unusual because she is making her own decisions about marriage (and this is one of the reasons the other women in the book look down on her). Usually, a woman would not have had this sort of independence and would have been handed over from her father’s control into that of her husband. The story of Fancy is not only valuable for her enjoyable vocabulary, but also as an insight in to what marriage meant for women in early modern England.
Nowadays, many women in the UK can decide not only when and if they marry, but also, what married life will look like for them. Women and men choose who they will marry, and when. If a woman marries, it does not necessarily mean she will have children, or be responsible for a household if she doesn’t want to be, like poor old Fancy. A woman can choose not to marry, and still enjoy security and safety in her old age. Marriage today is all about choice, so why do people find it so shocking when people alter the marriage ceremony, and the format of the reception to reflect their choices? My sister recently got married in a pretty traditional ceremony with a couple of tweaks and, while most people were supportive of the decisions she and her husband made about their big day, others became surprisingly angry! The two big decisions my sister made were that she didn’t want to be given away, and that she wanted to make a speech at the reception. Instead, my sister walked herself down the aisle (our parents walked in together before her), and at the reception the speeches were delivered by the mother and father of the bride, the bride and groom, and the best man and chief bridesmaid (that was me – and of course I wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to talk!). Why should only men speak at the wedding reception anyway? Don’t worry, she was strict on timing and it all went swimmingly. Really, what upset people the most was that she hadn’t been led down the aisle by her father and given away. They felt that her father had been denied a precious moment with his daughter.
A father leading his daughter down the aisle can be a very touching and special part of a wedding, but where does the tradition come from? And what about being “given away”? The simple answer is that a daughter was considered to be her father’s possession, and when she married she would become her husband’s. A marriage was basically a transaction between two men. This is also why it was traditionally the father of the bride and the groom who made speeches at the reception; it’s their big day! In a lot of cultures, money was also exchanged as part of this transaction. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Aegeus, Hermia’s father, puts it very simply when his daughter refuses to marry the young man he has chosen and he asserts his rights, “As she is mine, I may dispose of her”. Juliet’s father in Romeo and Juliet uses similar language:
An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good
In this scene Juliet’s father rages at her and threatens to beat her, but he does not need to. It is clear she has no options. If she’s his daughter he has a right to “give [her] to [his] friend”, and if she decides she isn’t, then she’s out on the streets. As in the story of Fancy, practicalities play a large part here: in a time when women could not earn their own living, defiance was not a luxury she could afford. If Juliet wants to live, she has to obey her father. The tradition of the father giving away the bride derives from this sort of transaction between men. Nowadays a marriage isn’t a business deal or a transaction between the father of the bride and the groom, but a life choice made by the bride and groom, or the groom and groom, or the bride and bride. That is why some people choose not to be given away. My sister liked the way the tradition of being given away acknowledges the care a father has taken in bringing up his child, but she wanted to acknowledge both her parents. That’s why both her parents walked down the aisle before her. She wanted to walk on her own to symbolize the fact that it was her decision to marry her husband. I loved the image of her striding down the aisle towards the future she had chosen with her husband.
Of course, that’s not to say a feminist bride can’t be given away, or that being given away necessarily has to represent the old patriarchal transactions of marriage. Isn’t Feminism about having choices? People can make choices based on what those traditions mean to them. There are a lot of wedding traditions that my sister acknowledges have their roots in hard-core patriarchy, but she wanted to keep them, either because she felt they had come to mean something new, or just because she flipping-well wanted to. For example, a couple I know and admire chose to walk into their wedding ceremony together. After all, a wedding is about a couple, not just the bride. For them, this entrance symbolised the equality of marriage. My sister loved this idea and agreed that the procession of the bride down the aisle could be deemed similar to the showing of a prize heifer at market day before sale. On the other hand, she wanted to wear an extravagant dress, parade down the aisle, and be the centre of attention, so that was a tradition she kept. In the end, her wedding reflected the way in which she and her husband understood the traditions of marriage, their likes and dislikes, and their flair for the dramatic. It was all about choice. No bride should be criticised for choosing to walk herself down the aisle, for choosing to be walked down the aisle by her father or mother, or another person who is important to her, or for choosing not to walk down an aisle at all. So, to all the brides and grooms out there (including Meghan and Harry) I say this: modern marriage is about choice, so let your wedding reflect your choices, and if anyone tries to tell you off, just look them squarely in the eye, and impressively pronounce the words “Thy silly twattling I despise!” before sweeping out of the room in whatever fantastic outfit you happen to be wearing.
Photographs by the amazing Katia Marsh.