This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on 23 April 2020. Enjoy!
“It must be very agreeable to her to be settled within so easy a distance of her own family and friends.”
“An easy distance do you call it? It is nearly fifty miles.”
“And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day’s journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.”
Rereading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time recently, I was struck anew by this little conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth, taking place as it does just a few days before the disastrous Hunsford proposal. They are talking about Charlotte, of course, and when the reader has prior knowledge of Darcy’s admiration of Elizabeth, it’s obvious that the conversation is designed to discover Elizabeth’s thoughts on whether she would mind living a long way from her family. There’s an interesting line at the end of the conversation where Darcy says “You cannot always have been at Longbourn”, by which he obviously means he thinks she must have been educated elsewhere, betraying his belief that she could not possibly have learned her manners and wits at home… something which made me think of the possibility of Jane and Lizzy attending a school for a while, perhaps funded by a grandparent who has now passed, and how that could have led to some Interesting Acquaintances… but I digress.
What I want to talk about here is twofold; firstly the gulf in station between Darcy and the Bennet family revealed by this little conversation, and secondly, one of my pet hates when I see writers getting it wrong in historical novels; geography and the logistics and speed of travel.
Firstly, let’s talk about that difference of opinion. Fifty miles is nothing to Darcy; he has carriages, fast horses, and servants. “Little more than half a day” can easily be extrapolated to about five hours’ travel, at a rate of ten miles an hour.
Now, one thing Darcy would not have done is hopped on his horse and ridden all the way. While a fit horse can comfortably cover ten miles an hour (walking pace is about four miles an hour; to do ten miles in a hour you have to trot and canter most of it), sustaining that pace is another matter. You’d wind up with a foundering, lame horse if you tried to cover fifty miles even over the course of a whole day. Yes, riders do it in endurance racing today, but they are very highly conditioned horses bred and trained specially for the purpose (usually Arabians), not heavy hunters of the type a gentleman like Darcy would own. Also, if you’re a horse rider? You know about the pain of spending a couple of consecutive hours in the saddle. Five hours? No, thank you very much. If Darcy wanted his riding horse transported from place to place over longer distances, the horse would have been ridden there by a groom at a much gentler pace, around twenty miles a day which the groom making overnight stops where the horse might very well have better accommodations than the rider!
Darcy would travel a distance of fifty miles via carriage, with his baggage strapped on the roof and in the boot, probably accompanied by a valet who would most likely ride on the box with the driver, and he would have pre-arranged teams of horses to be taken ahead and waiting at stops along the way – probably two stops for that distance, so that each team would cover around seventeen miles before being changed. With two or perhaps even four horses to pull the carriage, that means between six and twelve quality horses, accompanied by servants, put up at inns, fed and watered… the cost of that alone would have made Elizabeth’s eyes boggle. Consider that Longbourn had two horses which could pull a carriage, but were mainly used on the farm, and that someone as wealthy as Darcy might well have had enough carriage horses to enable him to change every twenty miles all the way from London to Derbyshire, and the gulf in wealth between the families becomes even more obvious. It was a major undertaking for Elizabeth to travel to Kent; she was lucky enough to ‘hitch a lift’ there with Sir William Lucas and Maria Lucas, but coming back Mr. Gardiner had to send his carriage for her from London, and then after a stay with the Gardiners she and Jane had to catch a public coach back to Hertfordshire (the exact town isn’t specified, but I guess at either Hertford or Hatfield) and be collected by the Bennet coach there to return to Longbourn. It would have been expensive and inconvenient, and a trip someone like Elizabeth could not have hoped to undertake more frequently than once every few years; thus Elizabeth’s shock at Darcy calling it an ‘easy distance’.
For JAFF writers, the best thing we can do when considering travel times and distances is adhere to canon as closely as we can. Jane Austen knew exactly how long it took to travel distances around England; she resided at various spots in Hertfordshire, Hampshire and Bath, and visited in quite a few other places. She knew how inconvenient, expensive and slow travel was, and I have no doubt she looked with a certain degree of envy at those who could afford carriages and teams of horses (and probably did her best to politely impose herself on them for a lift whenever she could manage it, too!). Sometimes, however, the story we’re working on takes us farther afield than the locations Austen used, and that’s when it becomes important to start looking at maps, measuring distances and calculating travel times – and considering economic circumstances when we do.
Remember, for example, the Gardiners took around 3 weeks to get from Longbourn to Lambton. They didn’t have a change of horses, so they had to set a pace their horses could sustain day after day and choose their overnight spots accordingly. The journey coming back must have been a nightmare – I wonder if Mr. Gardiner splashed some cash to rent horses to enable them to speed up? – another thread I must pursue one day!
Your best resource for working out distances and travel times is always going to be a map. Now, if you’re writing something set in London, you might want to use something like the Google Maps Regency Overlay, from which you can quickly figure out, for example, that it’s only about 200 metres from White’s Gentlemen’s Club to Hatchard’s bookshop, an easy walking distance. Honestly, almost everywhere the fashionable set might have wanted to go in Regency London is easy walking distance… but who would have walked? Gentlemen very probably would have, unless the weather was absolutely foul. Ladies? It depends on the circumstances, the time of day, whether they had a maid or companion with them… something else you need to consider.
For longer distances, between towns, you don’t need a historical map. Google Maps will do the job perfectly. Towns in the UK haven’t been relocated in the last 200 years. They’ve grown, yes, but a good rule of thumb is to measure the distances between the main post offices in different towns – the post offices are almost always right smack in the town centre! Stick to a rule of thumb that a carriage without a change of horses could probably max out at 25 miles per day and someone with Darcy’s resources could cover maybe as much as 80 (significantly less in bad weather and steep terrain) and you’ll avoid making too many geographical howlers.
True story: I read a historical romance (not JAFF) not too long ago by someone who will remain nameless but is Extremely Famous, who had a couple travelling by carriage from Essex (a county slightly east and north of London) to Gretna Green with a single overnight stop. 280 plus miles is a long day trip in a car or by train; by carriage it would have been many, many days, especially if the couple left on impulse and weren’t able to arrange changes of horses. It would actually be far quicker to head for the coast, hire a boat and sail up the east coast of the UK to get to Scotland that way, something I almost never see done in Regency romances but makes a lot more sense than taking a carriage all the way from London… which was a major port, after all. Much less chance of being intercepted, as well, something to bear in mind if you’re ever planning on writing a Scottish elopement! It’s almost 400 miles from Ramsgate to Gretna Green; the expense of travelling so far by carriage would be considerable. I’m quite sure Wickham would have arranged a boat to take him and Georgiana to Scotland instead, and even if Darcy had arrived within hours of their departure, interception would have been impossible. (There’s another story idea…)
Don’t forget… maps are your friend when it comes to getting history right!