A Matter of Time, by Riana Everly

A Matter of Time, by Riana Everly

Recently I have been thinking about time. It is one of those things we all rather take for granted. Oh, we complain about the shift to daylight savings or summer time, and we are all lost in this sort-of Covid-induced timeless muddle, but the concept of time and what time it is does not really figure large in our daily lives. After all, when the Zoom call is scheduled for eight o’clock, there we are, in front of our screens, at 7:59 so we’re not late.

But the idea of a consistent 7:59 is fairly new. The whole notion of a standard time for everyone did not come about until the mid-nineteenth century. And here is how I started thinking about it.

In my current WIP, I wanted to get Darcy out of Elizabeth’s hair for a day, so I sent him to London. But I needed him back at Netherfield for dinner. That was easy enough: give him a fast horse and no great time constraints, and it would be an easy ride for man and beast, about two to two-and-a-half hours, plus a rest in the middle. But then I started to wonder, what time was dinner? And would Meryton time be the same as London time? And if so, why, and if not, why not?

Jane Austen does not spend a great deal of time on, well, time, but she does set out some details. In Chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice, she writes,

At five o’clock the two ladies retired to dress, and at half-past six Elizabeth was summoned to dinner.”

This lets us know what time dinner was served at Netherfield; it also tells us how long it took the Bingley sisters to gussy up! But that’s another post.

Later on in the text, Mr. Collins writes that,

I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four o’clock…”

Likewise, we know when Darcy wrote his letter to Elizabeth (8 am), and what time Lydia got married (11 am).

In Persuasion, Mary Musgrove complains about her husband thus:

Oh! Charles is out shooting. I have not seen him since seven o’clock.

And in Emma, there is a great deal of discussion about time as the Westons anticipate the belated arrival of Frank Churchill:

“Think of me to-morrow, my dear Emma, about four o’clock,” was Mrs. Weston’s parting injunction; spoken with some anxiety, and meant only for her.

“Four o’clock!—depend upon it he will be here by three,” was Mr. Weston’s quick amendment; and so ended a most satisfactory meeting. Emma’s spirits were mounted quite up to happiness; every thing wore a different air; James and his horses seemed not half so sluggish as before. When she looked at the hedges, she thought the elder at least must soon be coming out; and when she turned round to Harriet, she saw something like a look of spring, a tender smile even there.

“Will Mr. Frank Churchill pass through Bath as well as Oxford?”—was a question, however, which did not augur much.

But neither geography nor tranquillity could come all at once, and Emma was now in a humour to resolve that they should both come in time.

The morning of the interesting day arrived, and Mrs. Weston’s faithful pupil did not forget either at ten, or eleven, or twelve o’clock, that she was to think of her at four.

But back to my earlier ponderings: What time, exactly, was four o’clock? Was it the same in Highbury as in Oxford? I had to find out.

Before the establishment of railways, there was little need for a standard time throughout Britain. Each town or city would have its own accepted mean time, usually established by noting when the sun was at its zenith in the sky, which marked noon. Public clocks would then be set according to this solar time. Local mean time, thus set, differs by about 4 minutes for every degree of longitude, meaning that there would be about half an hour’s difference between the furthest west and furthest east points in England (roughly Lowestoft to Penzance). In an age of horse-powered travel, when that 400-plus mile journey would take an average carriage about a week to complete, the difference of a few minutes here or there was negligible.

The change came when train travel was developed, and schedules became a part of the experience. Suddenly, it mattered if it was four o’clock in London and not five past four, especially if you had a connection to make. And so the first moves were made to establish a standardized time throughout Britain, replacing the local solar times that each community had kept so far. This standardized time – Greenwich Mean Time – was first used by British railways on December 1, 1847. By 1855, almost all of Britain’s public clocks were standardized to GMT.

None of this, however, played any role in Mr. Darcy’s day trip to London, other than assuring that he got back for dinner. But I really enjoyed my trip down that time-warp of a rabbit hole, because this sort of research gets me excited. Yes, I am a nerd that way!

Here is an excerpt from my latest release, Death of a Clergyman, when another character makes a quick dash to and from Town in a day, this time to the detriment of his poor horse. I’m sure he wished he could take the train, if only they had been invented yet.


“May I ask, sir, when Wickham returned from London?”

Colonel Forster furrowed his brows. “I cannot rightly say. I have not seen him since his return. He did not report this morning, but if he had returned late last night from London, it would not be unexpected for him to sleep past morning manoeuvres.”

“But he did return?” Mary asked.

Once more the colonel screwed up his nose. “His horse was in the stables when I went to inspect the beasts for the exercises. I had assumed the animal returned with his rider upon his back. Shall we ask the grooms?”

The lads on duty the previous night were soon found. Lieutenant Wickham—known best as the officer riding Peredur—had indeed returned the previous evening, just as the last rays of the sun were fading into darkness.

“He ought then to have reported first thing this morning,” the colonel grumbled. Alexander nodded but turned to Darcy and grimaced.

“Whilst we were sitting down at Caroline’s interminable dinner,” he murmured. Darcy’s eyes did not waver from the young grooms.

“Did you see the officer who rode in upon Peredur?” Alexander began his litany of questions.

“Yes indeed, sir,” the older of the two lads bobbed his fair head up and down.

“You knew him? You recognised his face?”

“Yes, I did, sir. It was the same one what sneaks out for ‘is meeting plans at night, sir.”

Now Darcy’s eyes flickered over to meet Alexander’s. The man’s habits had not changed since the events of the summer.

“And it was certainly Lieutenant Wickham?”

“Yes, sir. That is the name I was told when first ‘e arrived. It was most certainly ‘im. He gave me a sweet for taking extra care of Peredur for ‘e had ridden long yesterday.”

Darcy took over the questions. “Did Peredur seem particularly hard-ridden when he arrived at the stables?”

The boys looked at each other and shrugged. “No more ‘n usual, sir. It’s a long ride from London, but if a man takes it careful, it’s not hard on a strong ‘orse like Per. His shoes was worn more than I’d have thought, though, for ‘e was reshod the day afore the lieutenant took him out to London. When I went to check ‘is hooves for stones, the markings on the new shoes was flattened like ‘he’d been running full out for twenty miles or so. No so much as to be worn thin or need redoin’, not at all, but enough for someone what sees shoes every day to notice.”

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Mirta Ines Trupp
November 20, 2020 5:41 PM

Great post! I actually laughed aloud when I read your comment about the “rabbit hole”…my next post on Austen Authors discusses just that! Great minds think alike, I suppose. 🙂

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
November 20, 2020 2:26 PM

Oh how we have progressed from the sundial. I remember when I still worked in an office… I was located in the central US and often had to call either coast. That could make a big difference in what time I made my call. It was two hours difference either way. You had to really be on top of your schedule in order to meet deadlines and not miss conference calls. This was very interesting post. Blessings, stay safe, and healthy.

November 21, 2020 7:34 AM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

I find the same problem, Jeanna, when I am scheduling an event on the Tea Room or another FB group for all the authors in one of the anthologies. Two authors are in Australia (meaning they are on a different day than us), one in the UK (generally 5 hours ahead), and one or more in each of the U.S. time zones except Mountain Standard Time. It can be a nightmare.

November 20, 2020 12:28 PM

wow, you go girl. I loved how this made me think beyond our conceptions of time!

Bronwen Chisholm
November 20, 2020 12:03 PM

Thank you from one nerd to another. I hadn’t really thought about how time would be a few minutes off from one town to another and how that might affect things like travel. We are far too accustomed to our time zones. Death of a Clergyman is definitely on my TBR list.

Linda A.
Linda A.
November 20, 2020 11:06 AM

Interesting excerpt. Now, for your next rabbit-hole… What were horseshoes made of at that time that would cause them to wear in such a way?

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
November 20, 2020 7:48 AM

Cool exverpt! Interesting post about time too!

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