best weddings in literature

Mica Murphy / Penguin

There you are, in your best dress, eyes moist with affection at the thought your friend has found true love and happiness in an era of ghosting and Tinder. Her gorgeous white lace gown, his Cheshire-cat smile. Bridesmaids in avocado taffeta carrying jam jars filled with wild flowers, champagne on the lawn, a sweltering marquee, a drunken uncle who forgot to key the soles of his new shoes falling over on the dance floor. A cake made of cheese?

Hello, it's wedding season.

Except, none of us are going to any weddings this summer. You might not even be going to your own wedding, if yours was one of the thousands up and down Britain that got crashed by the coronavirus lockdown this year.

But there is at least one sort of wedding we can still attend – the sort found only between the pages of great literature. So, without further ado, dearly beloved, here is a selection of some of our favourite weddings in fiction.

The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear (1871)

Perhaps the most mind-bending wedding in literature, this. But also one of the most lovely. There they are, the Owl and the Pussycat, bobbing across the ocean in a “pea-green boat”, as the Owl serenades Pussy on his guitar. It's never clear why they're in the boat in Edward Lear's timeless nonsense poem; or the source of all their money (they're so flush they can even afford to wrap their money – and their honey – in a fiver; no small sum in 1871). Are they eloping? Is it some sort of Romeo and Juliet-type deal? The sexual dynamic between an owl and a cat is certainly an eyebrow-raising one. One can't help but wonder what their families must think.

No matter, their love is strong. Indeed, it's hard to imagine any couple – especially two of the animal kingdom's most natural predators – surviving an entire “year and a day” stuck in a boat together without things going full Life-of-Pi. But they do, sailing all the way to “the land where the Bong-Tree grows” where they meet a pig who sells them his nose ring, and the deal is sealed:

"… So they took it (the ring) away, and were married next day / By the Turkey who lives on the hill. / They dined on mince, and slices of quince, / Which they ate with a runcible spoon; / And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, / They danced by the light of the moon, / The moon, / The moon, They danced by the light of the moon."

Anne’s House of Dreams by L. M. Montgomery (1917)

“Anne wakened on the morning of her wedding day to find the sunshine winking in at the window of the little porch gable and a September breeze frolicking with her curtains.” So begins Chapter 4 of the fifth Green Gables novel by L. M. Montgomery.

The series charts the tumultuous life of Anne Shirley, a vivacious orphan sent to the remote Green Gables farm by mistake. She gets into all kinds of scrapes, living, loving and caring for her foster parents into their old age. She's a character even the crabby, cynical Mark Twain couldn't help but root for, calling her “the dearest and most loveable child in fiction since the immortal Alice".

So when she finally marries her old school rival, Gilbert Blythe, in the orchard of Green Gables, hearts – from Canada to Japan – melted, in what must be one of the sweetest weddings in fiction:

It was a happy and beautiful bride who came down the old, homespun-carpeted stairs that September noon ... slender and shining-eyed, in the mist of her maiden veil, with her arms full of roses. Gilbert, waiting for her in the hall below, looked up at her with adoring eyes. She was his at last, this evasive, long-sought Anne, won after years of patient waiting … Was he worthy of her? … then, as she held out her hand, their eyes met and all doubt was swept away in a glad certainty. They belonged to each other; and, no matter what life might hold for them, it could never alter that. Their happiness was in each other's keeping and both were unafraid.”

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1959)

Goodbye, Columbus is a boy-meets-girl story about love, and then losing it, but it's also about cultural assimilation, sex, classism, and religion. It tells the story of a summer fling between blue-collar boy Neil Klugman and the beautiful, rich Brenda Patimkin.

And when a relative of Brenda gets married, Philip Roth captures perfectly the inevitable chaos, dad-dancing and sozzled shenanigans of any large family wedding. He brings together a hokey-cokey of colourful guests, including “the Kosher Hot-Dog King” who keeps groping his wife in public, cake-snatching mums, sugar-charged kids, plenty of awkward dancing (to the My Fair Lady soundtrack, no less), and the drunken uncle who tells Neil, “don’t louse it up” with Brenda.

“As the night continued: we ate, we drank, we danced,” our narrator tells us. “… Near the end of the evening, Brenda, who'd been drinking champagne like her uncle Leo, did a Rita Hayworth tango with herself, and Julie fell asleep on some ferns she'd whisked off the head table and made into a mattress at the far end of the hall … by three o'clock people were dancing in their coats, shoeless ladies were wrapping hunks of wedding cake in napkins for their children's lunch.”

But the party doesn't end when the band packs up: “On the floor, relatives, friends, associates were holding each other around the waists and the shoulders, and small children ran in and out of the crowd, screaming at tag … our table was a tangle of squashed everything: napkins, fruits, flowers; there were empty whiskey bottles, droopy ferns, and dishes puddled with unfinished cherry jubilee, gone sticky with the hours.”

The Graduate by Charles Webb (1963)

Benjamin began shaking his head, still staring at her and clenching and unclenching his hands. The guests turned slowly as [the bride] passed them. The girls in green dresses formed two rows at either side of the altar. Then Benjamin slammed his hands down on the railing of the balcony and yelled.

'Elaine!!!'

The organ music stopped.

He slammed his hands down again. 'Elaine!!! Elaine!!! Elaine!!!'”

It's hard to read that passage and not picture Dustin Hoffman, puce-faced and sweaty with desperation, screaming for his love to run out on her wedding in Mike Nicholl's 1967 Hollywood classic. Or Ann Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson), for that matter, growling swear words through clenched teeth below.

But it was Charles Webb was who came up with that iconic scene – for my money the most dramatic wedding moment in fiction or film.

Elaine, of course, never wanted to marry Carl. It was Benjamin all along, despite the affair he had with her mother. So she and Benjamin, fighting off an advancing horde of angry wedding guests with a bronze cross he pulls off an altar, flee the church and into the sunset, by mercy of the Morgan Street bus.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (2013)

A $40 million dollar mega-wedding is the flavour of Kevin Kwan's uproarious social satire about the lives of Asia's jet-setting super rich. And boy it is a wedding.

When Singaporean super-heir Nick brings his naive "ABC" – American-born Chinese – girlfriend, Rachel home for the wedding of his billionaire best friend, Colin Khoo, Rachel is thrown into a world of private islands, palaces and jets. And she soon learns the hard way quite how eligible her boyfriend is. “Expect private-jet gridlock at Changi Airport and road closures all over the CBD this weekend as Singapore witnesses its own royal wedding,” predicts a local news report ahead of their arrival at the ceremony.

There are no flowers inside the church, “but there was no need, because suspended from the ceiling were thousands of young Aspen trees, meticulously arranged to create a vaulted forest floating just above everyone’s heads.”

Then the lights dim, The Vienna Boys' Choir light the aisle with fireflies in jars, and the bride materialises – flanked by bridesmaids carrying cherry blossom branches – “like a Pre-Raphaelite maiden floating through a sun-dappled forest.” 

It gets wilder, too - a spine-tingling snapshot of the incredible lengths the world's decimal-percent like to tie the knot.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

Emma and Charles Bovary 's marriage may end in despair, but their wedding almost makes everything worthwhile... for the reader at least. Emma, the romantic type that she is, wants to be married at midnight, by torchlight. But her father overrules her, decreeing a two-day epicurean extravaganza with “43 guests per table”, starting with a 16-hour feast - “[on the table] were four roasts of beef, six fricassees of chicken, a veal casserole, three legs of mutton, and in the center a charming little suckling pig.” Flaubert does not hold back in describing the spread in all its mouth-watering glory.

But the pièce de résistance is the wedding cake – surely the most spectacular in all of literature:

“Its base was a square of blue cardboard representing a temple with porticos and colonnades and adorned on all sides with stucco statuettes standing in niches spangled with gold paper stars. The second tier was a medieval castlegateau de Savoie, surrounded by miniature fortifications of angelica, almonds, raisins, and orange sections. And finally, on the topmost layer – which was a green meadow, with rocks, jelly lakes, and boats of hazelnut shells – a little Cupid was swinging in a chocolate swing. The tips of two uprights, the highest points of the whole, were two real rose buds.”

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