“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”
So writes Jane Austen in her delightful novel Northanger Abbey, as her heroine Catherine Morland sets off on her quest to become the heroine in her own story.
And I, likewise, am setting off for adventures as well. If all goes according to plan (which, these days, is not to be assumed), by the time this post goes live, I will be traipsing around Ireland. My last planned trip across the pond was curtailed by illness, so here’s hoping this one goes smoothly. We have been poring over guidebooks and websites, and have a list of things to see and do. Although we like to be flexible when we travel, we also like to have some purpose to guide our steps. And so, off we go in search of castles, ruins, grand houses, quaint pubs, and perhaps a pot of gold or two.
My husband is interested in ancient history and more modern political history, and my interests run to Mediaeval and 17th-19th century sites, so we plan to see everything from Neolithic tombs like Newgrange to the fabulous Kylemore Abbey. Photos are forthcoming!
Of course, having travel on the brain, I can’t help but turn my mind to Jane Austen and travel in her novels. Just as we are seeking adventure if it will not come to us, so must her heroines go out to meet their own destinies. In almost every book, a major turning point in the plot occurs while the characters are away from home. This makes a lot of sense, because although drama can happen on your very doorstep, being Elsewhere brings so many other possibilities and these plot points are emphasized and made more poignant for the change in location.
Pride and Prejudice is the first novel to come to mind, and there are two major events that happen while Lizzy is away from Longbourn. The first, of course, is Darcy’s unwelcome proposal and the subsequent letter that she receives while visiting Charlotte in Kent. This is the first time that she starts to see Darcy in a different light, and the setting lends something to this shift in her opinion. Here, at Hunsford and Rosings, she herself is a bit out of place – a guest in the house of her would-be-suitor and estranged best friend, and paraded before the grand Lady Catherine de Bourgh as an inferior being, shabby enough for the lady to preserve the distinction of rank. As such, she is emotionally less settled than she would be at home, and does not have the calm counsel of Jane to settle her thoughts. When she hears of Darcy’s betrayal of his friend Bingley, her reaction is fierce (and justifiably so, given the information she has); but likewise, she is vulnerable enough to be swayed by Darcy’s letter, despite the anger hanging over her from his catastrophe of a proposal.
The second place where the plot swivels is on another journey, this time to Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. Her unexpected meeting with Mr. Darcy at Pemberley completely changes her opinion of him, and the events that happen there and at Lambton propel the action through the rest of the book. While the events at Hunsford could, conceivably, have taken place in Meryton, this section could only occur in Derbyshire at Darcy’s estate, where he is comfortable and can show his true self.
Let’s look at some other journeys.
In Persuasion, the group decides to take a short trip to Lyme, where Frederick Wentworth has some good friends. Two important things happen there during their short visit. The first is that Anne Elliot first meets her cousin William Elliot. He clearly likes what he sees even before he knows who she is, which starts to rouse the little worm of jealousy in Frederick’s breast. In the latter part of the novel, Mr. Elliot plays a key role, and this initial encounter sets the groundwork for it.
Of greater importance, perhaps, is that this is where Louisa Musgrove has her terrible accident on the Cobb, which has all manner of consequences. Frederick’s admiration for Anne becomes apparent, for he is the one to insist that when matters are dire, Anne is the person everyone can rely upon.
“But if Anne will stay, no one so proper, so capable as Anne.”
This is the first time we see that he still has a deep respect for his former love, despite her rejection of him eight years before. Furthermore, this marks the end of Frederick’s half-hearted pursuit of Louisa. He hangs around Lyme for a few days, but quickly leaves the neighbourhood in case anyone gets ideas, leaving Louisa in the care of his friends the Harvilles. During her convalescence, Louisa falls in love with a fellow sailor, James Benwick, thus leaving Frederick quite unattached and ready to be jealous of William Elliot’s attentions to Anne in Act II.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne travel with their friend and patroness, Mrs Jennings, when she invites them to spend some time with her in London. It is there that Marianne discovers that her erstwhile beau, Willoughby, is avoiding her, and worse, that he is to be married to someone else, a lady with the fortune he so desires. When he spurns Marianne at a ball, her overly sentimental response leads to the illness that almost kills her later on. This is where Colonel Brandon shows that despite being on the wrong side of five-and-thirty, he can still be a hero.
Northanger Abbey, of course, is all about a trip, for Catherine Morland’s sojourn to Bath with Mrs. and Mr. Allen is the adventure which she must seek abroad. And there is a journey within a journey, for Catherine goes on a further trip, this time accompanying her friend Eleanor Tilney to the family estate, the evocatively named Northanger Abbey. The abbey, despite not being the ancient pile she expects, quite feeds her Gothic-novel-filled thoughts, complete with evil fathers, mysterious rooms, dark family secrets, and the handsome Henry Tilney himself.
Journeys are less obvious in Mansfield Park and Emma, but there are still elements of them.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is very much a homebody, more by circumstance than by inclination, as her aunts always need her around the house. When she refuses Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage, she is sent back to her birth family in Portsmouth as a sort of lesson, to show her what her future might be if she doesn’t do as she is told. But it is not Fanny who learns the real lesson during this trip. Rather, it is her extended family, the Bertrams, who discover how much they need Fanny back at Mansfield Park, for she is the one to offer her solid comfort when their world falls apart with Tom’s illness and Maria’s elopement.
In Emma, Emma Woodhouse makes even less of a journey; indeed, she travels very little, possibly never even having been to London, a mere 16 miles away, a distance that Frank Churchill goes to get a haircut. She laments over her confined circumstances, despite being the wealthiest by far of Austen’s heroines. In chapter 7, she comments on how she has never travelled to the seaside.
“Come, come,” cried Emma, feeling this to be an unsafe subject, “I must beg you not to talk of the sea. It makes me envious and miserable — I who have never seen it!”
Her big journey, therefore, is a day trip to Box Hill, a mere seven miles distant. Still, she has never even been here before, and the novelty of the place is as vital to the story as is Elizabeth Bennet’s holiday to Derbyshire, because it is at Box Hill that all the simmering tensions in the story come to a head. Frank Churchill flirts wildly with her, making Jane Fairfax jealous. Emma throws her dreadful insult at poor Miss Bates, possibly her worst social faux pas ever. And Mr. Knightly takes her to task for her thoughtlessness, which, for the first time, she recognises. From this point, Emma really does strive to do better, having at last seen some of the errors of her ways. It is this growth that lets her become the woman Mr. Knightly deserves when he finally confesses his affection.
As for my own journey, I don’t expect any such dramatic twists and plot points to occur. I’m going with my own Romantic Hero, after all, with nothing in the plot outline other than to see lots of beautiful places and perhaps drink a bit too much beer.
What do you think about the role of travel in Austen’s novels? I’d love to hear your ideas. And please forgive me if I don’t respond for a few days, because I’ll be chasing leprechauns in search of those pots of gold.