Many turning points of Austen’s plots occur away from home, and movement can really emphasise changing dynamics of relationships, social position, gender, and even personality.
Travel is more than a simple narrative device, it’s a useful illustration of gender positions in the Regency era.
Men travel for business
Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park travels to Antigua to settle matters concerning his plantation, the militia in Pride and Prejudice leave Meryton for Brighton, and in Sense and Sensibility Willoughby’s aunt sends him to London to keep him out of trouble, yet Marianne believes he’s leaving for business.
Austen’s narratives, written from women’s perspectives, rarely follow the men in their travels. Men’s destinations become a mysterious set of masculine forces that women have learnt to accept, but rarely understand.
Women travel for pleasure
Women, with no jobs of their own, often travel for one of two reasons: to accompany relations on jaunts around town or country, or to chase love interests.Women, with no jobs of their own, often travel for one of two reasons: to accompany relations on jaunts around town or country, or to chase love interests.
These journeys are not insignificant inclusions – each excursion is imperative to the plot. Take Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland – her life drastically changes once invited by family friends, the Allens, to tour Bath.
There she meets her future husband Mr Tilney: ultimately she matures from the naïve dreamer readers initially encounter.
In Austen’s society, where everyone in a given village knew everyone, travel becomes a precious opportunity for escape into other societies full of new prospects, and particularly new potential husbands.
Elizabeth Bennet accompanies the Gardiners on a tour of Derbyshire, where she begins to realise her affections for Mr Darcy, due to his lighter manner, and his stately home, Pemberley.
The Gardiners also persuade Elizabeth’s sister Jane to go to London with them, with a view to healing her broken heart– Mr Bingley, it is assumed, will not return to Netherfield, so Jane hopes to find him in town. And who could forget Lydia following the militia to Brighton?
Emma the exception
The trip to Box Hill in Emma does not immediately fit this pattern– Emma is not invited as a companion (due to her higher position in society than other Austen heroines), and constantly asserts her anti-marriage views.
However, she does chase a love interest, though not for herself; after her failure matching Mr Elton and Harriet, Emma turns her attentions to Frank Churchill, and earmarks him as Harriet’s husband.
Her plan goes awry, but Box Hill does end up as a turning point for Emma’s character. Her behaviour criticised and faults addressed, Emma comes to realise her mistakes, becoming more self-aware.
Furthermore, she acknowledges her love for Mr Knightley. Travel, for women, whose lives would otherwise be static, always leads to revelation, whether about the men they’re after, supposed friends, or themselves.
Town mice and country mice
It’s clear that Austen’s heart was in the countryside. Most of her country-dwelling protagonists aren’t seduced by the urban lifestyle, but even more effective is how characters reaffirm negative associations through experience of cities and the people they attract.
In Mansfield Park, Henry and Mary Crawford hail from London, and Edmund becomes disillusioned with Mary after meeting the acquaintances she kept there.
Persuasion’s Anne Elliot has always disliked Bath, but her aversion intensifies as the city becomes associated with her snobbish and elitist father and sister.
Elinor (from Sense and Sensibility) is wary about visiting London as she does not wish to run into her love Edward Ferras and his secret fiancée Lucy Steele there.
Marianne’s heartbreak over Willoughby truly happens not at their home of Barton Cottage when he deserts her, but at the ball in London, where it becomes clear that Willoughby’s attentions are fixed elsewhere, and any hope of a reconciliation is dashed.
Austen’s most damning verdict of London must be Lydia and Wickham’s escape to London in Pride and Prejudice.
Though it isn’t explicit, it is implied that Lydia loses her virginity here, and in this era sexual relationships outside of marriage would have repercussions not only for the woman in question, but her entire family, especially any unmarried sisters looking to find a husband.
The city is not only the site of ruin, it is complicit in it. Austen shows how the city is the preferred place for corrupt men by whom women are more easily tricked and led astray than they would be in their own communities.
It’s no accident that all of Austen’s most witty and intelligent heroines have a passion for the countryside.
For further reading on the theme of travel in Austen, take a look at Sanditon, Austen’s unfinished novel which centres around a coastal town that attracts those in need of respite and the sea air.
This is part one of a three part series on themes on Austen. Next month: Austen and Mothers. What do you think of Austen and Holidays? What have we missed? What’s your favourite Austen holiday? And will any of us ever get over that dip in the lake?
(Image via Thiopene_Guy)