Not long ago I was researching long-distance travel during the Regency for a story I was outlining. I needed to get a sense of how long it took to travel from Point A in my story to Point B.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of info on the Internet on the topic, including two very thorough posts I found on the blog of fellow Austen Author Regina Jeffers (I’ll link to them below). But all the info I read made me realize how uncomfortable and trying travel could be in Jane Austen’s time.
With the discomfort and high cost of travel to consider, it’s a wonder to me that anyone in Regency England would choose to leave home; but in Jane Austen’s novels, her heroines regularly travel great distances. In fact, leaving home and making her way in the world on her own is an essential rite of passage for each of Jane Austen’s heroines. Austen used what I call The Heroine’s Essential Journey device in all her novels but one. Here’s how it works:
The heroine travels away from her family/friends/home. In doing so, she is separated from any reliable relatives or friends who might be able to give her good advice. Instead, she is on her own (often for the first time in her life) to make decisions for herself. Her judgment is immediately put to the test when the heroine arrives at her destination, and finds herself thrown into a completely unfamiliar world populated by equally unfamiliar personalities she has never come across before. The heroine must learn to navigate her new environment, all the while discovering truths that make her examine her own behavior.
Here are my thoughts on how The Heroine’s Essential Journey was used in each of Austen’s novels (without giving too much of the stories away, in case you haven’t read them all):
Pride and Prejudice
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet first meets Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy on her home turf and takes an instant dislike to him, along with the rest of her family and friends. In fact, the entire neighborhood joins with Elizabeth in her dislike of the man, thereby reinforcing her prejudice.
Later in the novel, she travels to Hunsford, where she playfully indulges in her dislike of Mr. Darcy—a dislike that is reinforced when Colonel Fitzwilliam tells her how Darcy ruined her sister’s chance of happiness with Charles Bingley.
But it’s Elizabeth’s trip to Pemberley with the Gardiners that is Elizabeth’s Essential Journey. Her visit to Pemberley is the only opportunity she has to evaluate Darcy without anyone else’s influence. It’s her chance to ascertain his character and worth from the people who have known him all his life and have no ax to grind. And because the Gardiners never met Darcy before, they have a chance to get to know him, too, and help Elizabeth see Darcy with fresh, unprejudiced eyes.
Sense and Sensibility
When Marianne and Elinor Dashwood are forced to leave their home (along with their mother and younger sister) and take up residence at Barton Cottage, they embark upon a sort of mini-Essential Journey. They certainly have to learn to cope with a new environment (their virtual poverty) and new personalities (Sir John and Mrs. Jennings).
But their trip to London is their true Essential Journey. It’s in London that Marianne learns the reason Willoughby had to leave her. Elinor, too, is given a chance to understand Willoughby’s character better, but she also witnesses the depth of Colonel Brandon’s devotion to Marianne.
More importantly, in London Elinor finally lets loose and shows Marianne she, too, knows what it’s like to fall in love. Sensible Elinor proves that when it comes to Edward Ferrars, she is capable of just as much deep, passionate “sensibility” as any other young woman in love can show.
If you guessed Anne Elliot’s Essential Journey was her trip to Lyme Regis, you’d be right! And if you guessed it was Anne’s trip to Bath, you’d be right, too!
In my opinion, Anne Elliot had the rare experience of two Essential Journeys, because her trip to Bath built on top of her trip to Lyme Regis, which was significant in and of itself.
It was in Lyme Regis that Anne had her first glimpse of Mr. Elliot, a gentleman who takes on a significant role in her life once she reaches Bath.
It is also during her stay in Lyme Regis that Anne finally has a chance to be herself, after having spent the first half of the novel knocked for a loop by Captain Wentworth’s return after a seven-year absence.
And when trouble strikes during her stay in Lyme Regis, it is Anne who takes command of the situation. With Captain Wentworth’s help, Anne saves the day, and for the first time Captain Wentworth stops being mean to her, and actually begins to show her some kindness!
Later, when Anne continues her journey to Bath, she finds both Mr. Eliot and Captain Wentworth vying for her attention.
But more importantly, she begins to show her own strength of character. She starts small by spending an evening with her friend Miss Smith, in defiance of her father; but that small act of defiance bolsters Anne’s confidence so she’s able to stand strong when it counts later in the story.
Fanny Price takes her Essential Journey early in life. She’s a shy, awkward child of nine when she leaves her home in Portsmouth to live with relatives at Mansfield Park. Everything about her new life is different; how Fanny learns to cope (or not cope) with her new life drives the story and shapes Fanny’s personality.
Fanny is somewhat unique as Austen heroines go because her journey of discovery is constant. Everything in life presents a lesson—and a surprise—to her. She’s even surprised when she sees her first “chapel” and is disappointed that it has “no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners.”
Still quiet and shy, virtually every other character in the story mistakenly judges Fanny as weak … until she is forced to stand up for something she truly believes in.
Near the end of the novel, Fanny makes a second trip; this time, she returns home to Portsmouth, and that turns out to be a mini-Essential Journey of sorts. When she is finally reunited with her parents and siblings, Fanny recognizes some significant truths about herself and where she belongs in life.
At twenty-two Charlotte Heywood is destined to live out a “very quiet, settled, careful course of Life” in the country, until the day she receives an invitation to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Tom Parker at Sanditon, an up-and-coming seaside resort.
Jane Austen describes Charlotte as a “very sober-minded young lady, sufficiently well-read in novels to supply her imagination with amusement, but not at all unreasonably influenced by them.” Can we all agree that a sober-minded young lady living a quiet, settled life must go on vacation if she wants to find a little adventure? Especially if she is to find adventure with a young man like Sidney Parker (Tom’s younger brother)?
Austen’s description of Sidney is almost the exact opposite of the way he was portrayed in the recent ITV production of “Sanditon.” In the TV series he was brooding and rude. In Austen’s novel, he is a charmer, a man of “superior abilities or spirits,” with “great powers of pleasing.”
Jane Austen only completed twelve chapters of Sanditon before she passed away, but she used those introductory chapters to introduce interesting situations and oddly intriguing characters we’ve come to expect. I think Jane Austen might very well have thrown young Miss Heywood into situations that would make her question her own judgment, even as she discovers some things about herself that conform to Austen’s Essential Journey formula.
Like Charlotte Heywood, Catherine Morland travels to a resort town as a guest of her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Allen. This time, the resort town is Bath, and Catherine dives into that city’s pleasures with both feet.
The only problem is, Catherine makes one disastrous decision after another, from her choice of friends to her choice of which entertainments to attend. She even suffers because of the books she reads.
But of all Austen’s heroines, Catherine’s Essential Journey may be the most dramatic as she is forced to examine how much she has wronged others by the immaturity of her conduct, thereby paving the way for her to develop a more mature approach to life.
Many Austen fans don’t consider Lady Susan a true Austen heroine, but I do. She’s wonderfully vile and funny at the same time, and I can understand how she managed to manipulate and con her way through the world as well as she did.
But even though Lady Susan Vernon follows Austen’s pattern of embarking upon an Essential Journey, she is probably the only heroine to make the journey without learning anything at all from the process. She is just as manipulative and self-centered when the story ends as she is at the beginning; but the twist is that the people around her—the people she tried to con and bend to her will—are the ones who grow and learn from the experience.
Now, have you guessed the only novel Austen wrote in which the heroine did not travel? Yes, it’s …
Emma Woodhouse is unique among Austen heroines because she never traveled anywhere. Her journey of self-discovery had none of the advantages of a fresh location or new friends to help influence her in the right (or wrong) direction.
Say what you will about Emma’s snobbery towards her neighbors, from the beginning of the book Austen shows us Emma’s tender nature. She truly loves her father and willingly makes any necessary sacrifice for his comfort. And because Mr. Woodhouse is a practiced worrier and a hypochondriac who frets every time he has to leave the confines of his home, Emma stays home, as well.
But in her heart, Emma longs to travel, telling her sister, who just returned with her husband and children from a trip to a seaside resort, “I must beg you not to talk of the sea. It makes me envious and miserable;—I who have never seen it!”
It’s not until the closing paragraphs of the novel—after Emma has fallen in love and learned many life lessons along the way—that Austen hints at Emma and her new husband’s plans for a “fortnight’s absence in a tour of the seaside” as their wedding trip.
What do you think of Jane Austen’s recurring plot device of sending her heroines on a journey of learning and self-discovery?
By the way, if you’d like to read Regina Jeffers’ recent blog posts about Regency travel (mentioned above), you’ll find them here: