Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice, in a letter explaining Mr Darcy‘s role in securing Lydia’s marriage to Mr Wickham, Mrs Gardiner writes to her niece Elizabeth, whom she suspects the master of Pemberley admires very much:
“I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the (Pemberley) park. A low phaeton, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing”
Chapter 52, Pride & Prejudice
All that Mrs Gardiner wants to explore the Pemberley estate is a phaeton. But what were these carriages like, and what was their big attraction?
The Draw of Phaetons as Carriages
Phaetons were light four-wheeled, open and doorless carriages with one or two seats. They typically had a folding top to shelter their users from the sun or light rain, but they otherwise offered little protection from the elements.
One of their defining characteristics was that they offered no outside driver’s seat for a coachman. In other words, phaeton owners were expected to drive their carriages. This may have well accounted for their popularity during the Regency and beyond.
A Fashionable Means of Transport
It’s no wonder that Mrs Gardiner dreams of a handsome phaeton: it must have made for a rather exhilarating means of transport, particularly for those used to being driven around. Note, however, that she specifies that she would like it to be a low one (this is relevant, as we shall see in a minute).
Another Austen lady who is partial to a sporty phaeton is – you’ll never guess it! – Anne de Bourgh. While Elizabeth is staying with Charlotte and Mr Collins, there are several instances of Miss de Bourgh driving by or stopping by “in her little phaeton and ponies.” (This little tidbit of information, often overlooked, suggests a more intriguing character than the doormat we are used to seeing in Austen adaptations, wouldn’t you say?)
The Wide Appeal of Phaetons
Phaetons could be decidedly pretty: in Austen’s The Three Sisters: A Novel, part of her juvenilia, a young lady expresses her wish to own one that is “cream coloured with a wreath of silver flowers round it.” But as well as the low sort favoured by ladies, some phaetons featured a very high perch. So high, in fact, that they sometimes required a ladder to reach the seats.
The elevated centre of gravity of the light phaetons made for very fast vehicles, ideal for speed-loving young men. In Northanger Abbey, cool-as-a-cucumber Mr Tinley drives “a phaeton with bright chestnuts” with his sister, making Mr Thorpe a very jealous fellow (he has to make do with a more basic one-horsed gig, a carriage with two wheels only, and a second-hand one at that).
A Dangers Means of Transportation
High-perched phaetons were, unsurprisingly, very unstable vehicles, especially when driven around a bend at high speed. Accidents would have been common, almost expected for certain types of riders.
It is no wonder that in Love and Freindship, another Austen’s juvenilia story, the heroine and her friend witness the overturning of “a fashionably high phaeton” driven by “two gentlemen most elegantly attired.” (they turn out to be their husbands, but that, reader, is another story).
The Cautionary Tale of Phaeton, Son of Helios
The carriages were named after Phaeton, son of the Greek god Helios. Phaeton asked his father, who drove the chariot of the sun across the heavens every day, to prove his affection by granting him a wish. The god gave his word without realising that what the boy wanted was to drive his chariot, so he couldn’t say no when he realised his son’s folly.
Soon after setting off, Phaeton quickly lost control of the horses of the sun chariot and scorched a large expanse of the Earth which we now call the Sahara desert. Zeus, alarmed, had no choice but to strike the boy down with one of his mythical thunderbolts to stop the carnage, sending him to his death.
The story makes me think that perhaps no vehicle has ever been as suitably named.
Do you fancy the idea of riding a phaeton? Have you ever ridden a similar carriage?