No Concubine

Mary Beard

  • The Oxford Book of Marriage edited by Helge Rubinstein
    Oxford, 383 pp, £15.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 214150 3
  • The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive: Systems of Marriage and the Family in the Pre-Industrial Societies of Eurasia by Jack Goody
    Cambridge, 542 pp, £37.50, February 1990, ISBN 0 521 36574 0

There is not much romance in the average British Registry Office. The decorations are dirty and largely plastic, the notices forbidding. ‘Quiet please – marriage in progress,’ runs the standard government-issue warning hanging on the Registrar’s door – presumably to stop the expectant crowd in the waiting room disrupting the magic moments of those five minutes ahead in the queue. It is, after all, just a five-minute job – three minutes for handing over the fee and collecting your receipt, two for promising a lifetime’s commitment. And (in Cambridge at least – maybe other places have a more human face) the whole ceremony is conducted in the kind of petty bureaucratic style you associate with a driving test. Try asking to sign the register with your own pen. ‘No sir, it’s regulation blue or black ink I’m afraid,’ comes the response. ‘I’ll do it in black then,’ you say. ‘But we’ve only got blue.’ Smile please; kiss the bride; you’ve passed.

Rubinstein’s Book of Marriage does not touch on the routine, understated bad taste of so many British weddings. The nearest her anthology gets to a Registry Office is in Joan Didion’s account of the Las Vegas wedding ‘chapels’, whose extravagant vulgarities at least have some sense of style. Wishing-wells, piped organ music and Cadillacs on the house may not be everyone’s choice, but they would certainly brighten up what most British have to suffer in the process of getting wed. And the idea that these chapels offer a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week service also has its appeal. Better surely than 10 to 3.30 Monday to Saturday – and the sneaking suspicion that the grim-faced officiant has just fitted in registering a particularly nasty death in the five minutes before your appointment.

Rubinstein has chosen most of her extracts about the marriage ceremony itself from the safe, familiar classics of wedding literature. There is some point in this. For it is, after all, the literary tradition that bolsters our tawdry civil ceremony and gives it a symbolic excitement far beyond anything that the attenuated ritual itself deserves. The memory of the country church wedding still lies in the imagination of those thousands of couples whose confetti get blown away in the exhaust fumes of the Euston Road. The spectre of Mr Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and the stunning interruption of his first attempt to marry Jane Eyre, still adds a frisson to the routine question on ‘just cause and impediment’. And those equally ‘literary’ figures of Charles and Di, the gallant prince leading his innocent young bride to the altar, provide an image of romance that still manages to support even the cheapest shotgun wedding. Surprisingly, Rubinstein found no place in her anthology for this royal epitome of marital perfection. But she makes up for this gap with a good deal from the private journals of Queen Victoria – who seems to have succeeded in convincing herself, at the same time as the rest of the world, that her all but arranged wedding to Albert was in fact the consummation of blinding romantic passion.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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