Thoughts on Travel in ‘Sense and Sensibility’

Sense & Sensibility is about so many things, but there is an emphasis on income, inheritance and money, and how the world of the late 18th, early 19th century figured in the lives of Austen’s characters, especially the women in her novels.  But one of the things one notices after a number of readings is the amount of movement in this novel – the constant  comings and goings of the characters, with their visiting, travels to London, moving from one end of England to the other.  On first reading, you might almost miss the extent of this movement, after all, nothing really ever happens in Austen, isn’t that what we always hear?!  But take a look at the map on the site for Sense and Sensibility and you will see what I mean. And if you know anything about travel in late 18th – early 19th century England, you will be know how arduous such travel was.  I am going to chart the movement of characters in the novel and the means whereby they moved from place to place, or as Mrs. Jennings so aptly asks of the Misses Steele:  “How did you travel?”  

Austen knew first-hand the travel issues of her day [read her letters!] – and she was very knowledgable and consistent in writing about it in her novels – often not necessarily specific but there are clues all around!   But alas!, there is so much to discuss about travel: carriages and their parts; the history of the postal system; the history of coaching and the turnpike system; the economics of the time – taxation, income and inheritance – all these; but I will in the next several posts offer a brief outline of the travel in Regency England, its difficulty and costs with a few thoughts on economics; then a discussion of movement in S&S; the types of carriages in use in Regency England and those used by Austen’s characters; and finally a few words on the London of S&S – it has the most mention of any of her novels, and interesting to see where each character was housed in Town.  And at the end of this series of posts, I will provide a bibliography and further reading references.

 Part I:  Travel in Regency England  

[English Counties: Map from]

  • -The difficulty of travel due to the condition of the roads – each parish was responsible for its own roads but they were largely dirty and muddy, and dangerous
  • -most people traveled by foot:  certainly true of the lower classes, but recall Mrs. Dashwood: 

 …his [Mr. Middleton’s ] repeated assurances of his carriage being always at their service, the independence of Mrs. Dashwood’s spirit overcame the wish of society for her children; and she was resolute in declining to visit any family beyond the distance of a walk.  

  •   -traveling in vehicles in the daytime or only in the nights with bright moonlight, little travel in winter, no travel on Sunday
  • -improper for women to travel alone [if you read Austen’s letters, you will see that she was completely dependent upon her brothers to visit anyone or travel any distance; and how outrageous that Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland was put on that coach all alone!]
  • -for overnights at coaching inns, travelers often brought their own linens or silverware…
  • -travel vehicles were uncomfortable and dangerous due to the road conditions and highwaymen
  • -despite all this, the late 18th-century saw a great improvement in the roads, and one could travel great distances more quickly [and if they had the money!].   Paterson’s British Itinerary, a travel guide had 17 editions between 1785-1832 – it outlined the roads used by the stage and mail coaches, the tolls, the bridges, etc.   

[Image from]

A quick review of travel times [varies depending upon vehicles]:  

  • – Mr. Darcy:  8 miles/hr –  recall his famous line to Elizabeth:  ‘what is 50 miles of good road? little more than half a day’s journey’
  • -the Stage Coach [and General Tilney]:  7 miles /hr
  • -average travel time:  4-6 miles / hr
  • -100 miles = 2 days of travel [and remember, no travel on Sunday]
  • -in 1800, London to Edinburgh took 60 hrs; London to Norwich, 19 hrs 

The estimated mileages in Sense and Sensibility: [this is in todays distances] 

  • London to Bristol = @ 106 miles
  • London to Bath = @ 97 miles
  • London to Exeter = @ 157 miles
  • London to Plymouth = @ 192 ,iles
  • Exeter to Honiton = @ 16 miles
  • Honiton to Weymouth = @ 35 miles

[Map of S&S: from]

Cost of living ~ some basic facts: 

The economy in Britain during this time was very unstable – hard to effectively calculate the meaning of what the cost of living was in the early 19th century and to compare it with ours today; also some items cost more in Austen’s times than they do today, some less.

One 1988 article calculated that one pound in 1811 = $33., so Darcy’s income of 10,000 = $330,000.  The following month another article said that to compare 1810 with 1990, one should multiply today’s average per capita income by 300 [in 1990 this was $20,894.] = $6,300,000. would be Darcy’s income in today’s language.  Another article:  the pound in 1800 = $100. , so Darcy’s 10,000 = 1 million! – to be honest I just got dizzy with this whole thing!  [There are various websites where you can play around calculating these amounts, such as Measuring Worth, and the National Archives Currency Converter]

And remember that Austen often tells you exactly what someone is worth – this was common knowledge at the time and was not considered rude to talk about it.  But when there is a reference to money, for the men, she is referring to their annual income [Darcy 10,000; Bingley 5,000; Brandon 2,000; etc], but when referring to a woman, the reference is to her total assets, i.e. this money would be invested at 5% and she would earn the income from that each year, so Miss Gray’s 50,000 [Austen’s richest woman] is not her income, but rather the income from that, so £2,500 / year to live on.  [note that this is not always consistent, but is largely a general rule in Austen]

 So rather than trying to figure out what something would be worth today, it is better to look at the cost of living, i.e. what things cost in Austen’s time,  so to gain some perspective, keep the following in mind:

  • the world that Jane Austen writes about and the world we see visually in the film adaptations portrays a very small minority of the population, the “Polite World”, the upper 10,000; Austen might give various clues in each novel to that other world, but it is easy to forget it when reading about the romance and balls and carriages and fashion, etc.   
  • Edward Copeland, an Austen scholar who has written much on the economics of Austen’s world, and says she was “meticulous” in presenting these economic truths, states that this economic world in S&S is presented in terms of the power that money brings with it, and the frightening aspect of this for the women in the novel, where it seems that the “wicked, foolish and selfish” are rewarded.  
  • in 1799, in order to support and pay for the war with France, the British Government imposed a tax of 2s / pound on all income over £200; there were also taxes on windows, on malt, sugar, tea, coffee [considered a luxury tax], etc… 

Some hard economic facts ~ in a world where the lowest “respectable” income would be about £50 / year: 

  • a common laborour:  £25 / year – this to maintain himself, his wife, and 6 children in food, lodgings, clothes and fuel 
  • governess:  £25 / year 
  • curate w/ house and garden:  £40 / year  
  • average gentleman = £150 /yr
  • for a gentleman in 1825 with an income of £250 – for himself, his wife, three children and a maidservant, food cost a little over £2.5 / wk = £135 /yr.
  • £370 /yr – will support 2 servants 
  • £500 /yr – will support two servants, a boy, an occasional gardener  [Mrs. Dashwood and three daughters] 
  • Edward & Elinor when married will have £850  [after his mother gives him money – they would have married with only 350 – see Copeland in Cambridge Companion.]
  • £800 – 1200 will support a carriage  [hence Willoughby is living way beyond his means, as we shall see…]
  • £5000+ – the minimal income needed to partake of the “London Season” – [The John Dashwoods, etc] – renting and running the household, elegant parties, stabling horses, clothing, etc.

So if Austen doesn’t tell us directly about a character’s income, you can figure it out by inference:  London? any carriage? how many servants? 

 Costs of travel:  [estimates for 1800] 

  • Stage Coach:  2-3 pence / mile = 1.25 pounds from London to Bath / half-price if up top / outside [but remember the average income was about £30 / year 
  • Hired post-chaise =  estimate about £1 / mile [i.e @1 shilling / horse / mile, to include the postillion] 

Costs of Horses: for hunting, racing, riding, pleasure drives

  • -expensive to buy and maintain:  cost = 100 pounds; annual maintenance 120 pounds to stable in London
  • -costs of the carriages [discuss later] – but there were also taxes on private carriages and horses; toll roads
  •  -for perspective:  in 1801, 8 million population in England; in 1814, there were 69,200 taxed carriages [i.e. less than 1 / 100]:  23,400 four wheeled; 27,300 two-wheeled; 18,500 “tax-carts” [basic springless vehicles] [quoting All Things Austen]

 The economic realities in S&S ~ remember that Mrs. Dashwood could not keep a horse or a carriage after the loss of their inheritance:  

1.  Narrator on the Henry Dashwoods: 

…the horses that were left her by her husband had been sold soon after his death, and an opportunity now offering of disposing of her carriage, she agreed to sell that likewise at the earnest advice of her eldest daughter.  [and she had 500 pounds a year!]

 2.  Narrator on Willoughby’s gift of a horse to Marianne [his irresponsibility – the realities of owning a horse]:  

 …Willoughby had given her a horse, one that he had bred himself on his estate in Somersetshire, and which was exactly calculated to carry a woman.  Without considering that it was not in her mother’s plan to keep any horse, that if she were to alter her resolution in favour of this gift, she must buy another for a servant, and keep a servant to ride it, and after all, build a stable to receive them…

 3.  Marianne on a competence:  she wants 2000 pounds a year: 

I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.   [the irony being that that is exactly the income of Colonel Brandon!]  – and of course, Elinor responds:

TWO thousand a year! ONE is my wealth!

4.  Fanny Dashwood in the infamous scene talking down the inheritance: 

Their housekeeping will be nothing at all.  They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind!

 And on that happy note, I will pause ~ next up:  what is the income of the characters in S&S, where do they live, and to where do they travel in this novel of many travels?


[Posted by Deb]