Victorian Studies 45.3 (2003) 457-484
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Victorian Wedding Cakes and Royal Spectacle
When Adrian Harley, the pampered gourmand and theatrical voyeur of George Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), discovers that Richard has defied his father and married in secret, he takes it upon himself to inform the family of Richard's nuptials. In a chapter called "The Procession of the Cake," Adrian gleefully distributes pieces of Richard's wedding cake to his shocked relatives, savoring the delicious spectacle of their outrage and disappointment and forcing upon them not only the knowledge of Richard's mésalliance but also a kind of guilty complicity with the act. When Richard's dyspeptic uncle and erstwhile guardian rejects the proffered morsel as poisonously rich, Adrian responds, "Your share you must take and appear to consume. One who has done so much to bring about the marriage cannot in conscience refuse his allotment of the fruits" (314). Accepting the cake would mean accepting the marriage, becoming a mute if somewhat belated witness to the ceremony. The rite of inclusion that Adrian stages as a series of unwelcome revelations is really nothing more than a warping and expansion of the wedding feast proper, since the distribution of the cake is always an apportioning of responsibility, an act of inclusion via gustatory performance.
Issues of witness, responsibility, and performance have long swirled around critical discussions of the marriage ritual, from J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words (1962), in which the nuptial "I do" is the locus classicus of the performative speech act, to Andrew Parker and Eve Sedgwick's discussion of the silent and corrosive interpellation of the queer wedding guest. As Parker and Sedgwick write of "the dynamic of compulsory witness" invoked by the marriage ceremony: "It is the constitution of a community of witnesses that makes the marriage; the silence of witnesses (we don't speak now, we forever hold our peace) that permits it; the bare, negative, potent but undiscretionary speech act of our physical presence [...] that ratifies and recruits the [End Page 457] legitimacy of its privilege" (10-11). "Marriage," they write, "isn't always hell, but it is true that le marriage, c'est les autres: like a play, marriage exists in and for the eyes of others" (11). Through the play of state authority, the marriage ceremony calls into being the lowest common denominator of the heterosexual world, the dyad, and through the act of silent witness, the spectator plays a necessary role.
It is as hostile witnesses that Adrian Harley would cast his reluctant relatives, not out of any untoward love of state power or compulsory heterosexuality, but out of a sheer love of theater. Indeed, Richard Feverel is a novel that understands not only the theatrical nature of power in its many manifestations, but also the importance of props to the smooth functioning of authority. It is in great detail, then, that the novel follows the procession of the cake (or, as Adrian calls it, "the monument made portable" ); if Richard's family members have not been given the chance to hold their peace, they are at least invited to consume their piece, a roughly equivalent performance. The novel makes it quite clear, in fact, that the cake's official function is to promote silence, to keep the peace: "There is one who comes to all feasts that have their basis in Folly," Meredith writes,
who will speak, and whose hateful voice must somehow be silenced while the feast is going on. [...] [The hostess] knew him [...] [and] provided against him in the manner she thought most efficacious: that is by cheating her eyes and intoxicating her conscience with the due and proper glories incident to weddings. [...] Entrenched behind a breakfast-table so legitimately adorned, [she] defied him. In the presence of that cake he dared not speak above a whisper. (297)
The "cake colossal" (297) quells insurgence, muffling the interior voices of dissent in its great white folds.
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