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Monday, 3 October 2016

Jane Austen: Travelling in England (1790-1815)

It is fascinating to visualise travel two hundred years ago, as depicted in Jane's novels. When Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins and moves to settle at Hunsford Parsonage, this involves travelling from, say, Wheathampstead to Sevenoaks - a distance of less than 60 miles. Even with the average traffic load of the M25, it would be unlikely to take more than two hours today. Darcy thinks Charlotte must be pleased to be not very far from her family. Elizabeth, however, considers such a journey long.

In Mansfield Park, William Price attends the ball (in Northamptonshire) on the 22nd but has to be in Portsmouth on the 24th. He covers about 150 miles necessarily via London, it seems, even though London is off the direct route. At first he intends to go by the mail from Northampton the following night which would not have allowed him an hour’s rest before he must have got into a Portsmouth coach. It seems he would have been travelling all through the night. Is this what the mail coaches did? Their lights must have been remarkably advanced. As it happens, Henry Crawford offers him the slightly less tiring alternative of a lift as far as London, travelling post with four horses

When William travels from Mansfield Park to Portsmouth with Fanny later in the novel, in the dirty month of February, the journey takes them two days, with an overnight stop at Newbury, averaging 75 miles a day and apparently avoiding London.

The journey from Bath to Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire (Chapter 20 of Northanger Abbey) is vivid, as is Catherine's return to her home (roughly from Stroud via Salisbury to a village near Southampton - a total of about 93 miles). With a very early start, this takes all of one day. Maybe this journey enforced by her eviction is to be regarded as a special case, for it incurs no sense of wrong, even though it is undertaken on a Sunday. One of the things Anne Elliot holds against her cousin Walter Elliot is that there had been 'bad habits' in his younger days, including 'Sunday-travelling'. Sundays were 'holy'. Working and travelling on a Sunday - except in an emergency - was wrong. In England, this attitude persisted until about 1960. 

Horse-drawn vehicles travelled slowly. The journey from just outside Exeter to London (over 160 miles) takes Elinor and Marianne three days. It was just possible to get from London to the Bristol region (about 120 miles) in one day: Willoughby did when he heard Marianne was ill. He set out from London at 8 o'clock, stopped only for a pint of porter with my cold beef' at Marlborough and reached Cleveland at 8 o'clock in the evening. That was a very fast journey for those days.

The Dashwood ladies in Sense and Sensibility set up home in their cottage at Barton, just north of Exeter (approximately where Brampford Speke is). Later scenes take place in London and Somerset. It is easy to imagine that Jane, in writing of their experiences and Mrs. Dashwood's plans for improvements, may well have been using some of her own family's feelings. As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window-shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honey-suckles. A narrow passage led directly through the house into the garden behind... . Mrs. Dashwood says that in the Spring she will think about building. These parlours are both too small for such parties of our friends as I hope to see often collected here... . The Dashwood ladies – guided by Elinor’s prudent advice - restrict themselves to just three servants in their cottage.

As for taking furniture when moving house, it is interesting that when Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters move from Norland, Sussex, to Barton, their furniture is 'sent round by water'.

On a slightly related point, I am pleased to note that Edmund gets ordained at Peterborough Cathedral, because Peterborough is a place I often visit. Peterborough Cathedral (dating from the Twelfth Century) would have been Edmund’s ‘local’ cathedral, being only about 35 miles north-east of Mansfield Park. Catherine of Aragon is buried there.