By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
During the 19th century, the prosperous had time on their hands. Even some of the middling classes had some leisure hours to fill. The working classes, however, enjoyed far less. But for those with disposable income, travel and tourism were prized. If one sought a change of scene, then they needed a way to get there, as well as the money to do it.
Economic Privilege and Leisure
Privileged young people, especially young men in Britain, had a tradition of traveling to ‘the Continent’, to Europe, in pairs or groups. It was part of a rite of passage called the Grand Tour; it might remind us of today’s college student’s study abroad programs. However, in Austen’s day, this sort of international travel was seriously curtailed during the Napoleonic wars. To avoid the dangers of wartime, travel within Britain became, for a time, the preferred choice. For those who could afford it, domestic tourism experienced a boom.
It’s important to understand something about leisure time—then, as now, one’s available number of leisure hours derived from economic privilege. Austen understood that. She also understood that charity—of time and money—was expected from the economically privileged. They weren’t supposed to live lives of constant leisure. That’s because the privileged were imagined as benevolent caretakers of the disadvantaged.
In Emma, Mr. Knightley offers his carriage to Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. He understood the expected masculine responsibilities for a man of his class, including serving as a magistrate or a lay judge for his community.
The feminine responsibilities of the privileged included making charitable visits. Emma Woodhouse visits a poor, sick family, presumably to bring food and, perhaps, medicine. To make this visit appropriately and politely, she needed to walk with a female companion, so she goes with Harriet Smith. Polite ladies weren’t supposed to go out alone, even in their own communities.
A wealthy person might choose to shirk charitable duties or to be lazy or indolent, like Mansfield Park’s Lady Bertram, lolling on her sofa with her little dog. Her choices tell us about her moral fiber and her energy. It’s no wonder Edmund finds it attractive that “active and fearless” Mary Crawford proves herself “formed for a horsewoman”, when we recognize that he was raised by a half-asleep mother.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Carriages: A Sign of Wealth
Having access to a horse or a carriage indicated a certain level of wealth and activity, but which kinds, and in what condition, carried further meanings.
When, in Mansfield Park, the Bertram children worry about how Sir Thomas would react if a scratch were put in the varnish of his carriage, that’s a telling detail. His is new, perfect, and perfectly cared for carriage, showing off his wealth and his fastidiousness.
For most people then, owning one carriage and even one horse was financially out of reach. A good carriage horse could have cost 100 pounds; a hack could have been gotten for 25 pounds. People of more modest means might have been able to afford a donkey at a cost of three pounds, but then there was also the expense of food, shelter, care, accessories for the horse or donkey. For a farmer making perhaps 25 pounds a year, or a clerk making 30 to 70 pounds, owning and keeping a horse was a luxury. A carriage would have been far out of reach.
That’s one reason why Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor Dashwood tells her sister Marianne that she can’t accept even the gift of a horse from Willoughby. First, the Dashwoods have nowhere to keep a horse, and second, they don’t have enough money to maintain it.
Types of Carriages
Horses and carriages signified wealth. A carriage meant simply a horse-drawn vehicle, but people then would have known them well by their different types.
The most common types of carriage in Austen’s novels are gigs and curricles. A gig was a light, two-wheeled carriage, pulled by one horse. It was designed for a driver and a passenger, although, in Persuasion, Admiral and Mrs. Croft are able to squeeze in the heroine, Anne Elliot, next to them as a third passenger. Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins also drives a gig, and so did Jane Austen’s brother Henry.
Curricles were faster and more powerful, as they were pulled by two horses. They were also more fashionable. A gentleman with a curricle might be imagined as like today’s stereotype of a driver of a red sports car. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby takes Marianne for an illicit private drive in his curricle. Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice has a curricle, as does Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. John Thorpe may drive only a gig, but he brags to heroine Catherine Morland that his gig is curricle hung. In other words, it was modified to be more like the dashing, flashy vehicles.
A chaise was, like the gig and curricle, an open-air vehicle, but it was larger and had four-wheels. It was understood to be a pleasure vehicle, used for sightseeing. Other smaller vehicles included the buggy and cart. A buggy was light and designed for one passenger. It was considered cheap and unfashionable. Carts had two wheels, pulled by one horse, and were used for farming and trade. Austen rode in a donkey cart, which is now on display at the Jane Austen House in Chawton, England.
Common Questions about Travel and Tourism in the 19th Century
Privileged young people, especially young men in Britain, had a tradition of traveling to Europe, in pairs or groups. It was part of a rite of passage, and was called the Grand Tour.
The most common types of carriages in Jane Austen’s novels were gigs and curricles. A gig was a light, two-wheeled carriage, pulled by one horse. It was designed for a driver and a passenger. Curricles were faster and more powerful, as they were pulled by two horses. They were also more fashionable.
A chaise was an open-air vehicle; it was large and had four-wheels. It was understood to be a pleasure vehicle, used for sightseeing.