Remember how your grandfather stumbled and then fell into the garden pond. You wore a suit, freshly pressed - a strange look from your usual garb of sweat and day creased shirts. I in a satin dress of peacock colours, never wanted to be conventional, but my bouquet was of white arums from the garden. Everyone clustered: your mother, mine, my siblings, your sister and her fiancé, those friends who could make it, smiles and congratulations. Remember how we teetered into crinkled rows on the muddy lawn for the photographer and almost forgot to cut the cake so carefully iced by your mother. Remember our wedding, that happiest of days of our life spent together that somehow didn’t happen.
While editing today’s entry, I turned to the dictionary to double-check the correct spelling of the man who is engaged to a woman. Dictionary entries often provide a sentence in which the word is used in context. I glanced down. “My fiancé and I were childhood sweethearts.” Interesting, I thought. I wondered, what might be the explanatory sentence for the woman who is engaged to a man? Here it is: “He went back to the valley to marry his fiancée.”
This was beyond interesting. My hackles inflamed. What archaic whatnot continues to be delivered in these sentences?
The woman, as the narrator in the first sentence, is hitched conjunctively and in sentence subject position to the man to whom she is engaged (“My fiancé and I”). This in a twenty-first century dictionary entry designed to clarify the meaning of “a man engaged to a woman.” There are alternatives, which set the two consenting adults as independents entering into an agreed contract. What about, “I proposed to a man, who agreed to marry me”? Or, perhaps it would be congenial to keep the couple pairing and shared history. Then let’s at least add some more believable action to the construction, “My fiancé and I met at work/a conference/playing tennis/surfing/while studying engineering”.
The reference to “childhood sweethearts” adds an overlay of those happily ever-afters much fawned upon in childhood and, well, fairy tales. Of course, there are some folk who meet their partners early on in life. However, the strident feminist in me is most uncomfortable to read of marriage agreement overlaid with tropes of infantilism, at worst, or indulgent adolescent mooning. For the twenty-first century reader, this explanation is at odds with the times and many adult women’s real experiences of marriage or long-term partnerships.
As general language understanding and accessibility goes, “childhood sweetheart” is a decidedly idiomatic expression. The explanatory sentence simply falters in accessibility.
Yet, the second sentence, “He went back to the valley to marry his fiancée” could be as confusing for contemporary English –language users. Why should a man return to the wilds below the mountains to marry the woman to whom he is engaged? Is this some special English-speaker tradition? Not usually, though country weddings and returning to one’s home ‘village’ is not uncommon. Here the explanation paints a pastoralized version of the cave-man returning to the tribe to take up his woman, presented albeit as a neater pre-Industrialist version. Try the revision method I engage earlier. (Yes, that was deliberate.) Replace the man’s claiming action with some other activity and the valley location to somewhere more in keeping with contemporary, metropolitan contexts. Consider, for example, “He took the bus to the town hall to marry his fiancée”.
And, pray tell, what on earth is any modern-day, city-girl doing back in the valley? Marriage is not exclusively a rural/ peri-urban past-time. Let’s try, “He and his fiancée took their vows in front of the magistrate”. Even better, as a homage to one involved groom I met, “He helped his fiancée by selecting the wedding flowers”.
It also bothers me that both sentences locate the forthcoming wedding/marriage as an activity that involves returning to the past, childhood (time) or the valley to which the man must return (place). The significance of engagement is that it is a preliminary contractual agreement for an event to take place in the future. But now I have run out of possible alternative sentences. Hang on, what about, My fiancé and I will apply for a mortgage with our combined incomes.” Or, “My fiancée and I are planning our wedding on a budget“.
I sense a forthcoming poem about grooms flocking to the valleys.
P.S. Though did you notice, the gender of the suit wearer in the poem is not made explicit?
Fresh off the press this week! My latest volume, Emily’s Poems for Modern Boys, offers insights on life, work and love from the kind and curious poetess, Emily. Preview her introduction and some of the poems here.
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