It has been six years since I read this sharply observed little novella from Julia Strachey, and my excuse to re-read it was provided by my second book group.
Julia Strachey, niece of Lytton Strachey wrote this beautiful little piece in 1932, it was subsequently published by the Hogarth Press, and was regarded highly by Virginia Wolf. With this novella written around the time Julia Strachey’s own marriage was failing, we can perhaps see her own feelings to marriage and the possibility for happiness.
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding takes place over the course of just one day. The day, the wedding day of Dolly Thatcham, and the events, such as they are, concern the minutiae and chaos of the day. Strachey presents her characters in all their absurdity; there are fascinating currents of human behaviour running beneath the story. These characters of course are of a certain class – and their behaviours perhaps go hand in hand with that, Mrs Thatcham, a wonderfully terrible creation, manages the day with steely brightness she is frequently distracted and vague – telling anyone who will listen; what a good day it is for Dolly’s wedding. It is however, a cold, blustery March day, and chaos reigns, much of it caused unconsciously by Mrs Thatcham who has allocated more than one guest to the lilac room, and seems to have little idea of what is going on.
Dolly, we are told has only been engaged to Owen – who is several years older – for a month. Following the wedding, Dolly will travel with her new husband to South America. There is so much that the reader can infer from this, Dolly is not a typical blushing bride, sat swigging rum as she dresses, and ruminating briefly on the previous summer and Joseph and what all that might have meant. In a sense Dolly is an infuriatingly passive young woman, who blithely allows all this to happen to her, how much power she might have to alter the course of her life is perhaps unclear, as is how much she really cares.
“Dolly’s white face, with its thick and heavily curled back lips, above her black speckled wool frock, glimmered palely in front of the ferns, like a phosphorescent orchid blooming alone there in the twilit swamp.
For five or six minutes the pale and luminous orchid remained stationary, in the centre of the mirror’s dark surface. The Strange thing was the way the eyes kept ceaselessly roaming, shifting round again…this looked queer – the face so passive and remote seeming, and the eyes so restless.”
The reader somehow knows from early on that things are not all they could be. Joseph a friend and probable former lover of Dolly’s slouches unhappily around the house, while cousins squabble and Dolly’s younger sister Kitty bosses everyone around. So much goes unsaid, or if said at all is misunderstood or goes unheard, so when Kitty tries to warn her mother that more than one guest has been assigned the same room she goes unheard, and Dolly and Joseph never manage a properly satisfying conversation. When Dolly upsets blue ink all over her wedding gown, it’s a symbol, no doubt for what lies ahead and ironically the only person present in that moment to help her is Joseph.
The wedding itself, with Dolly being given away as is traditional by a male relative, happens off stage so to speak. The family and guests leave for the wedding at the church next door, and return soon after – the deed done. Joseph remains behind, watching an eccentric village woman lay the wedding tea.
“In this cutting, furiously buffeting wind, amid the cries of goodbye, and bowing down before the storms of rice and confetti, the lack of high spirits on the part of the bride and the bridegroom passed unnoticed. Away they drove, out of sight round the drive corner, and without wasting another moment the whole crowd made for the shelter again as hurriedly as might be.”
The wedding over, the guests return for tea, the two boy cousins are still squabbling and Mrs Thatcham fussing over an aged aunt seems satisfied that all has gone off splendidly. Having laid down the law rather over Dolly’s beloved pet tortoise it isn’t long before Owen and his bride are off, their obvious unsuitability ignored by those seeing them off, and Joseph is left behind to vent his fury on bemused assembled guests, before he too must leave.
There is a delicious mix of sharp humour and real tragedy in this beautifully written little novella. The reader will no doubt fill in the rest of the story for themselves. Certainly Dolly driving off with her new husband, and Joseph thrashing about furiously before leaving a house he is clearly not that welcome in –is a long way from being the end.