In Austen’s time, a family’s having its own carriage, driver, and horses meant greater security, independence, and status. A carriage in Austen’s fiction signaled wealth because an income of more than 800 pounds a year was required to keep a carriage. Yet, even among those who did own a carriage, it wasn’t a given that the family’s horses would be available.
Traveling without Personal Vehicles
If one couldn’t afford a vehicle, there were still other ways to get from one place to another. For traveling long distances, on regular routes, stagecoaches were used. For shorter distances, there were vehicles designated as hackney.
Hackney is a general term for a rental or a vehicle for hire. Hackney coaches were often the cast-off, used vehicles of the wealthy, so they had worn, unattractive interiors. They were looked down on by the elite as grungy or dirty.
Slightly more genteel was the post-chaise. Painted yellow, it was a mode of rental transport that had evolved from postal carriages and postal routes. These vehicles were like taxis, with a driver for hire. A post-chaise was quicker but more expensive than a hackney, with a cost of perhaps a shilling a mile. It, too, might only go a limited distance with passengers or to a certain stop. When, in Pride and Prejudice, Lydia and Wickham elope together, they begin in a more fashionable post-chaise. Then they transfer to a shabbier hackney coach. Readers would have understood this as a figurative sign of Lydia’s downward spiral.
Post-chaise in Northanger Abbey
A post-chaise also figures in Northanger Abbey, when General Tilney banishes Catherine Morland from his estate. Catherine is forced to travel by post, changing chaises, drivers, and horses. Her luggage needed to be transferred at each post.
The speed of a horse-drawn carriage was said to be about 11 miles an hour, but eight miles an hour was more typical, when the carriage was heavy or the terrain was rough. Catherine needed to go 70 miles, so she had a grueling, all-day trip, with many stops and changes. Genteel ladies were supposed to travel with an attendant, but Catherine was forced to travel alone. If not for Eleanor Tilney’s quick thinking in giving her money, Catherine might have been stranded at a post stop, the equivalent of being stuck without money at a bus station.
An early reader of Northanger Abbey, Maria Edgeworth, found this section of Austen’s novel preposterous—quite “outrageously out of drawing and out of nature”—because she couldn’t imagine the general could send a “young lady” home without a servant or common civilities.
Her reaction shows how public transportation was imagined as dangerous, especially for young women. The state of roads made traveling uncertain. Carriage accidents were common. Traveling at night could be done if the moon were out and the night unclouded, but there was also the danger of highwaymen forcing the carriage to stop and robbing its passengers. Some people then believed that drivers and thieves worked in concert to target victims.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Horses and Carriages
Even among those who owned a carriage, it wasn’t a given that the family’s horses would be available. They were often needed for labor in the fields.
There’s a direct conversation about this in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennet quips that the family’s horses are “wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them”. In other words, the Bennet women took the horses out for the carriage too often, which interrupted the work of the farm and cost the family money.
Carriage is the general term for a horse-drawn vehicle. However, the grandest carriages were coaches, which were covered vehicles that carried four people inside and had windows. Coaches were often described as ‘stately’ and could be grand and showy. What was known as a barouche was a type of coach with a collapsible hood, like a convertible. A coach called a landau had a two-part hood, in which either the front or the back could be raised. A barouche-landau had two seats that faced each other, with a middle-opening top that could fold back in either direction.
When in Emma, Mrs. Elton talks about her sister and brother-in-law’s barouche-landau, over and over and over, readers ought to understand that she’s name-dropping.
Carriages signaled status. But it wasn’t only what vehicle you arrived in, where you traveled mattered, too. Destination travel had noticeable trends. London had its so-called season, which lasted from November to May. Fashionable people wanted to be ‘in town’, as London was called, during those months. Outside of those months, the wealthy retreated to their homes in the country, which meant almost anywhere that wasn’t London or another metropolis.
Other destination cities included Bath, the famous spa town, which was both a medical tourism destination and a singles meet-up city. When Emma’s Mr. Elton wants to find a bride quickly, he goes to Bath and returns home married in a matter of weeks.
Bath had a population of working people whose labor supported the monied. This labor included carrying them as passengers throughout the city’s narrow and sometimes steep streets in what were called sedan chairs. Sedan chairs were enclosed boxes with a bench inside, and long handles extending on the front and back. They were carried by two men. When, in Persuasion, Captain Wentworth wants to get Anne Elliot a ‘chair’ in the street, in the rain, he means a sedan chair. Anne refuses and insists on walking.
Common Questions about Why the Way One Traveled Was Important in Austen’s Time
Hackney is a general term for a rental or a vehicle for hire. Hackney coaches were often the cast-off, used vehicles of the wealthy. They were looked down on by the elite as grungy or dirty.
Public transportation was imagined as dangerous, especially for young women. The state of roads made traveling uncertain. Carriage accidents were common. Traveling at night could be done if the moon were out and the night unclouded, but there was also the danger of highwaymen forcing the carriage to stop and robbing its passengers.
Coaches were the grandest carriages. They were covered vehicles that carried four people inside and had windows. Coaches were often described as ‘stately’ and could be grand and showy.