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Adapted by Sue Forgue from the "Travel in Sense and Sensibility" essays by Deb Barnum at Jane Austen in Vermont
The Regency Era was the last period where overland travel was completed by horse and carriage alone. The railroads, then considered a bit of a novelty, were just being developed but were soon to be crisscrossing the countryside. Part 1 of the online travel exhibit focused on how one traveled; in Part 2 the focus is on the most common carriages used in the period, many of which are mentioned in Austen’s novels.
In the previous section, we learned that for any journey, there was a choice between the public stagecoach and a private carriage. The reason why such a vast network of stagecoach routes developed over the centuries was that horses and carriages were very expensive to own and maintain. It took a considerable income to purchase good horses, solid carriages, a coachmen to drive them, footmen to accompany, a postilion that rode one of the horses in lieu of a coachman, the gilded livery these men wore plus all the costs to feed and stable the horses and the wages paid to the men. On top of that, carriage horses, the carriages they pulled, and the coachmen and footmen who took care of both, were all heavily taxed by the government to help underwrite the fighting of the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815).
In the novels, Austen is often very specific in naming what type of carriage a character drives. When we know about the costs of carriages and horses, and their upkeep, we see that Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility is living far beyond his means by owning a curricle. His attempted gift of a horse (Queen Mab) to Marianne is outrageous, not only in its impropriety (as a gift to an unmarried and unrelated female) but also in its lack of fiscal responsibility as the Dashwood ladies barely have enough money to live comfortably in their straitened circumstances. Austen does this throughout her works, and even if she does not specifically tell us the type of carriage or the exact income, we understand, as the readers of her day would have understood, another piece of the puzzle about any given character.
Much like owning a luxury vehicle often translates today into an outward display of wealth, what type of carriage you rode in not only displayed one’s wealth but often the owner’s class status as well.