In view of the coming Royal Wedding here’s a glimpse of the conventions regarding engagements that prevailed sixty three years ago. So You’re Engaged, a collection of essays by a motley crew of contributors, containing some ‘big‘ names of the time, such as the cartoonist Marc, Gilbert Harding, Godfrey Winn, John Betjeman, Constance Spry, Peter Ustinov, Elizabeth Arden, Andre Simon and Googie Withers, is undoubtably a period piece, just as today’s guides to healthy living and spiritual wellbeing will be regarded as ‘of their time’ in the future.
The first contributor was ‘What’s My Line’ radio celebrity and confirmed bachelor Gilbert Harding, who injects some clear-headed common sense into the ‘delovely and delicious ‘aspects of being engaged. It’s all very well the groom drinking in all the beauty of his future bride, Harding warns, but this is the time to notice some of her irritating habits. ‘Does she get lipstick on her teeth, comb her hair in public, let her stockings get twisted, let her nail varnish flake?’ Moreover, does the handsome fiancé ‘ talk with his pipe in his mouth, does he use a clothes brush, does he keep his shoes clean and can you bear his friends ?’
There are some wise words too from Gilbert on how to keep the marriage on an even keel. Harding cites five ‘really happy marriages ‘he has known in which the couples have alighted on a winning formula. They behave, Harding suggests, as if they are ‘still engaged’.
‘They are still careful of one another, they still take trouble to do the pleasant little things that always matter, and their manners towards one another have not been impaired by familiarity. They are not rude to one another in front of other people; they don’t quarrel about each other’s bridge, and if the soufflé has failed to rise, or the eggs are overcooked, or if he is ‘ unavoidable detained’ ( even though he only says so ) there is no scene…’
The advice from anonymous wedding experts concerning the reception is equally sensible, though there are some rather quaint items, among which is this specimen wedding reception bill:
100 guests @ 7s 6d per head £37 10 0
Wedding cake, three-tier, stand and knife 10 10 0
Ice for champagne 1 1 0
1 bottle lemon squash 4 0
1 bottle tomato juice 3 0
12 jugs fresh orange juice @ 2. 6d. 1 10 0
Rent of reception rooms 31 10 0
200 cigarettes 2 2 0
18 boxes rose petals 1 7 0
43 bottles champagne 48 7 6
£134 4 6
Reading this account one is reminded of the BBC at the time, when free cigarettes whisky and wine were always provided for guests in the green room. Today, you are more likely to get just coffee or mineral water, as I know from personal experience.
John Betjeman’s contribution was ‘ A Subaltern’s Love Song’, the famous Joan Hunter-Dunn poem.
Before Peter Ustinov, then living in Los Angeles, waxes lyrical on romantic honeymoon destinations in France, Spain Italy and Germany, he casts a refreshingly cynical eye on the American way of newly-wedded bliss.
‘There is a way for newly-weds to behave, and that way must be adhered to, otherwise hideous conclusions are reached about their adjustment to life. They must express a determined and healthy optimism, and display enough of their hearts on their sleeves to reassure their friends as the genuinesness of their attachment. They must counter the superlatives of congratulation with supper superlatives of gratitude. They must blush at the unveiled allusion, and hold hands tightly when the band cunningly strikes up “ Happy Birthday to You” for their especial benefit. They must look up at other people’s babies with the sentimental application of impoverished shoppers confronted by the last enticement of the autumn sales. They must dream of White Christmasses, red menaces, blueberry pies, and root for democracy as though democracy were a creed rather than a method.’
But how much is a honeymoon holiday likely to cost ? Back in 1954 the price of air fares to these destinations compares dramatically to those of today’s lo-cost airlines:
Athens is £97, Lisbon is £65, Naples is £50, Palma is £40, Rome is £47 and Stockholm is £50. All are for return air flights, but when we consider that Peter, one half of the putative couple planning an overseas trip, earned a mere £800 p.a ( well over the average salary in 1954), a return flight to Athens for him and his new wife could set him back a quarter of his yearly pay. And that’s before two weeks at a hotel is paid for!
When Peter and his beloved contemplate buying a home near London prices cited range from around £3,000.These compare unfavourably with the £2,500 price tag on the largish detached house on a private estate between Bexley and Dartford that my own parents bought in the very year in which So You’re engaged appeared. Not surprisingly, this boasted a few of the household appliances items advertised in the book, including a Hoover washing machine and wringer, those uncomfortable chairs that everyone admires nowadays, and also the exact same fireplace ( I remember it well) featured on page 113. Very few of the household items that my parents subsequently furnished it with have been passed down to my two brothers and myself. But the one purchase that is still doing good service in my present home are the pair of Sanderson curtains ( of c 1959) designed by John Piper and entitled ‘Stones of Bath’, which I recently saw for sale in an art gallery at £1,000 !!
Master gastronome Andre Simon, then at the height of his fame, outdoes Ustinov for forthright views, but perhaps a newly married English couple, who doubtless believed back in 1954 that gammon with pineapple rings was the height of sophistication, badly needed lessons on appreciating good continental cuisine. Like Ustinov, Simon has a good bash at the Americans:
‘The typically American attitude to food may be likened not unfairly to that of the laboratories guinea-pigs. The average American citizen, whether he has too much or too little to do, cannot spare the time to think for himself: his mind is made of for him by the most enterprising practitioners in advertising there are in the world. Their technique as regards food is extremely simple and highly successful: first of all, the guinea- pigs are made to realise how wrong they are if they imagine they are fit when their bowels are slowly being choked, their livers gradually curling up, stones forming all the time in their gall bladders and every other part of their anatomy likewise deteriorating. The next step is easy: the alarmed Guinea Pigs are offered their salvation in the shape of Tom’s Vitamin Tablets, Dick’s Yeast Cubes, and Harry’s Laxative Pills. All manner of nutritionists and dietician keep up the good work in books, pamphlets, magazines and newspapers, and make sure that the great American public shall live in fear of vitamin or calories deficiencies, watching their daily intake of proteins, and calling for balanced meals at all costs…’
Plus ca change, Andre old boy! Now it’s the Internet doing all that.
The book ends with yet another gay bachelor tendering advice—this time to a newly married female friend. Godfrey Winn was as famous in 1954 as a sort of ‘agony uncle ‘ as Gilbert Harding was as a grumpy media personality, but considerably younger and less crusty. The usual difficulties of early married life are discussed —jealousies, the female and male confidantes, babies…
All in all, what So You’re Engaged demonstrates above all is that although the manners and mores of society may have changed a little in sixty – three years, the basic hopes and fears of the engaged and the newly married don’t seem to have done.