Summer is a season of weddings: people are freer to travel, brides can go strapless as is customary, and vows can be made outside in the open air. This summer I’ve been reading a lot of nineteenth century literature, and given the season as well as how many of these novels are concerned with when and who the protagonists marry, it’s not too surprising that I’ve been struck by mentions of wedding cake. Wedding cake often operates in these texts as figurative language or as a symbol, in addition to the physical cake present in nineteenth-century nuptials. This sample of literary allusions will suggest that a shared idea of wedding cake–and everything it stands for–looms as large in the cultural consciousness in past centuries as it does today.
Jane Austen, Emma (1815): Among the sorrows of Emma’s father when Emma’s governess marries and leaves their family: the wedding-cake was too rich and caused him stomach upset. He was apparently the only one; the rest of the wedding cake was eaten, and the narrator pokes fun at Mr. Woodhouse for his inability to believe that anyone else could survive such rich food, and his attempts to prevent guests from eating it. It may be assumed that this cake was not the buttercream and refined sugar confection that we know today: cake itself was relatively new in the nineteenth century–earlier wedding customs involved bride pie–and a plum cake or spice cake was more likely the culprit here. Still, this attempted circumvention is very gauche, as the guest’s consumption of wedding cake has a long history of association with the couple’s fertility and it would be considered rude to refuse it.
It’s also interesting that Austen uses the term “wedding-cake”; “bride cake” was somewhat more common.
George Elliot, Middlemarch (1874). Rather early on, when Dorothea is getting to know Mr. Casaubon, the narrator notes that this gentleman seems unaware of conversational trivialities: he “never handed around that small-talk of heavy men which is as acceptable as stale bride-cake brought forth with an odor of cupboard.” To be frank, I’m not sure whether the cupboard in question was storing the cake in advance of the wedding–I’ve read accounts of nineteenth-century bakers taking days to layer up sugar icing–or after the wedding, as some folks do today (I’ve so far found no reputable accounts of the latter). Either way, the allusion is comic here: the joke is on the talkative old men, like Dorothea’s verbose uncle, who don’t seem aware that their conversation may be stale and redolent of cupboard. At the same time, Dorothea is just on the brink of giving up her passionate, vigorous youth in marriage to Mr. Casaubon, who considered ancient and fusty by every other character in the book. Dark wedding cake humor indeed!
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890): A young, not-yet-spoiled Dorian Gray visits a theater in a seedy part of town (is there any other kind, in Wilde’s world?). In re-telling this event to his friend Harry, he says: “I looked out from behind the curtain and surveyed the house. It was a tawdry affair, all Cupids and cornucopias, like a third-rate wedding-cake.” At this point in the century, weddings have fairly become an industry. The high-profile marriages of Queen Victoria, her daughter Vicky, and her son Leopold over the last few decades of the nineteenth century have encouraged royal weddings bakers to new heights–literally, as tiered cakes became more common around this time–and sculptural feats. Naturally, there would be knock-offs for the social climbers.
It is surely no accident that it is here, in this third-rate wedding cake of a theater, that Dorian falls in short-lived love with Sibyl Vane.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860): Going out of chronological order, but I had to save the most elaborate for last. Our hero Pip visits eccentric Miss Havisham as a young boy and is taken through a room with a dusty, cobwebby table that seems alive with the motion of spiders and beetles skittering across it. At the center is an epergne, or centerpiece, that Pip can’t quite make out under all the webs. Miss Havisham tells him that this is where she will be laid out when she is dead.
“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick. “That, where those cobwebs are?”
“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”
“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”
This exchange echoes a previous conversation between then, when Miss Havisham asked Pip to identify what lay in her chest. (Answer: her heart. Broken!) Her bride-cake, like her broken heart, looms large as a symbol of her betrayed love and the dessication of her hope and youth: it’s important to Miss Havisham to impart the significance of these symbols to Pip, who–still young, still hopeful–otherwise might not recognize them. The bride-cake–henceforward referred to as the “rotted cake” hangs around in later scenes, when Miss Havisham’s gloomy weirdness seems a matter of course to Pip; it’s both merely another accessory in the house where time stopped and significant enough to mention.