There are numerous mentions of carriages in Persuasion, and if we examine them they are very interesting: considering the owners and their choices of carriage reveals much about their essential characters.
Today we shall consider Charles Musgrove and his curricle. The existence of which so irritates his wife, Mary…well, to be fair, it is not its sole existence which irritates her but their lack of a coach.
Let me explain further. To Curricles…..Dashing, wealthy young men owned them in the late 18th /early 19th centuries and this was reflected in Jane Austen’s books. Darcy had one in Pride and Prejudice, Henry Tilney had one in Northanger Abbey, Mr Rushworth ( not dashing but very rich) in Mansfield Park; Willoughby (not rich but deceptively dashing – boo, hiss- )owned one in Sense and Sensibility. Mr Elliot, in Persuasion, also owns one, though he is driven in his by his servant, properly kitted out in mourning for Mr Elliot’s dead but unlamented wife :
They had nearly done breakfast, when the sound of a carriage (almost the first they had heard since entering Lyme) drew half the party to the window. It was a gentleman’s carriage, a curricle, but only coming round from the stable-yard to the front door — somebody must be going away. It was driven by a servant in mourning.
The word curricle made Charles Musgrove jump up, that he might compare it with his own; the servant in mourning roused Anne’s curiosity, and the whole six were collected to look by the time the owner of the curricle was to be seen issuing from the door, amidst the bows and civilities of the household, and taking his seat, to drive off.
Persuasion, Chapter 12
They were smart, fashionable carriages and gave the young man the opportunity to drive himself ….an opportunity to show the world that he knew how to do these things in style and was a competent sort of chap.
Sandy Lerner, the chatelaine of Chawton House and noted carriage owner/driver, wrote this interesting passage about curricles in The Female Spectator ,Volume 4, Issue 1 (Winter 2000):
The curricle was a conspicuous display of wealth and fashion analogous to the ownership of a high-priced, 2-seater convertible sports car. It was an unnecessary and expensive addition to an establishment as one necessarily had at least one other traveling all-weather vehicle. Also called a “bankrupt cart” because in the words of a contemporary judge they were “frequently driven by those who could afford neither the Money to support them nor the Time spent in using them, the want of which in their Business, brought them to Bankruptcy”. It was a young person’s vehicle noted for its lightness and speed, especially as it was drawn by two horses.
In Pride and Prejudice “when the sound of a carriage drew them to a window, and they saw a gentleman and lady in a curricle driving up the street. Elizabeth, immediately recognising the livery, guessed what it meant, and imparted no small degree of surprise to her relations by acquainting them with the honour which she expected.” Mr Darcy is, in one word, portrayed as stylish wealthy and competent.
The curricle shown above was designed by William Felton. He was a coach-maker, of 36, Leather Lane, Holborn, London and the illustration (along with all the others in this post) comes from my copy of his Treatise on Carriages, published in 1794
This is how he describes a curricule and its owners (and frankly sounds a little blase about the type of customers this vehicle attracted :
The proprietors of this sort of carriage are in general persons of high repute for fashion and who are continually of themselves, inventing some improvements, the variety of which would be too tedious to relate
In his book he estimated the cost of a new curricle at between £58, 9 shillings and 3 pence and £,103, 5 shillings depending on the finish and extras added to it.
And now we can see a little more clearly one of Charles and Mary Musgrove’s problems: Charles has a curricle ( a rich man’s plaything) …but as they have a growing family, they really needed not a flash sports car but a “people carrier” -a coach- in order to travel around all year in the countryside without constantly having to rely on the goodwill of Mr and Mrs Musgrove.
“I am very glad you were well enough, and I hope you had a pleasant party.”
“Nothing remarkable. One always knows beforehand what the dinner will be, and who will be there; and it is so very uncomfortable, not having a carriage of one’s own. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove took me, and we were so crowded! They are both so very large, and take up so much room; and Mr. Musgrove always sits forward. So there was I crowded into the back seat with Henrietta and Louisa; and I think it very likely that my illness to-day may be owing to it.”
Persuasion, Chapter 5
Mr and Mrs Musgrove senior own a coach-a good all-weather vehicle that can carry at least four, plus lots of luggage when they travel about the country.
Where only one carriage is kept, and the use of it is almost constantly required, a plain, substantial coach is to be recommended, in preference to a slight ornamental one: as by being exposed to all weathers and rough roads it is less liable to require expensive repairs and if well formed and neatly executed in the finishing, will always preserve a genteel appearance: in this pattern of a coach there is nothing superfluous or wanting to make it complete; and for convenience may be considered as one of the cheapest of all four wheeled carriages.
A coach commissioned from Felton would cost at least £133, 9 shillings.
Mary Musgrove is, in my very humble opinion more than a little justified in saying that it is very disagreeable not having a carriage “of their own”. The curricle is hardly a practical all-year-round vehicle: it cannot comfortably hold more than two passengers and has limited capacity for carrying luggage as non can be stored on the roof for it is in effect, a soft top which cannot bear a load. Living in the country where the effects of the weather would be more keenly felt than in a city, a good plain coach would surely make her more mobile and comfortable. She cheers up immensely when “tending” Louisa in off-season Lyme:
Mary had had her evils; but upon the whole, as was evident by her staying so long, she had found more to enjoy than to suffer. Charles Hayter had been at Lyme oftener than suited her; and when they dined with the Harvilles there had been only a maid-servant to wait, and at first Mrs. Harville had always given Mrs. Musgrove precedence; but then she had received so very handsome an apology from her on finding out whose daughter she was, and there had been so much going on every day, there had been so many walks between their lodgings and the Harvilles, and she had got books from the library, and changed them so often, that the balance had certainly been much in favour of Lyme. She had been taken to Charmouth too, and she had bathed, and she had gone to church, and there were a great many more people to look at in the church at Lyme than at Uppercross; and all this, joined to the sense of being so very useful, had made really an agreeable fortnight.
Persuasion, Chapter 14
I think a lot of her unhappiness stems from boredom and isolation. A coach would alleviate some of that by providing her with all year-round traveling opportunities. Felton himself advises that if only one carriage is to be owned ( by a family )it ought to be a good plain coach. You can clearly see why Charles wants a fashionable, smart curricle , as a fully paid up member of the “Heirs to a Pretty Little Estate Club”.
But I think in this case you can see that he is being a little selfish and Mary Musgrove really is more than a little justified in saying that it is very disagreeable not having a carriage “of their own” .
Its rather like a 21st century man not wanting to sell his two- seater soft top Porsche when the family has grown and what they really need is a Citroen Picasso.