By The High Priestess
In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney drives a curricle; John Thorpe drives a gig. Could there be any significance to those gentlemen's respective vehicles? Perhaps!
The equipages were quite similar: they were both sporty, two-wheeled vehicles that seat two, a driver and a passenger. They were generally driven by young, single or newly-married men, as a family would require a larger carriage with room for several passengers. They were both perfectly useful vehicles that would have well served their owners' purposes. However, if you compare the two young men, one can imagine that Jane Austen did not arbitrarily assign them a vehicle.
John Thorpe is a parody of a Gothic villain who might force a young lady into a "traveling-chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed," and indeed he gets her into the vehicle by nefarious means (lying to her) and drives her away "with incredible speed" from an assignation with the hero. But of course, Thorpe is merely a buffoon, a character whom we are meant to laugh at, although he would be surprised to hear it. He is a fairly self-satisfied chap; he constantly boasts about his gig, his horse, his hunting and riding skill, the wealth and importance of his friends. Even his description of his humble equipage is boastful: "Curricle-hung, you see; seat, trunk, sword-case, splashing-board, lamps, silver moulding, all you see complete; the iron-work as good as new, or better." But even Thorpe even seems to think that his equipage suffers in the comparison to a curricle, and even slyly tries to make his gig seem better: he calls it "curricle-hung." Why would he do this? Was a curricle really better than a gig?
The main difference between the two vehicles was that a gig required one horse to pull it, and the curricle required two. Therefore, a curricle would necessarily be double the horsepower of the gig. It's interesting that John Thorpe constantly boasts of his horse's speed, yet drives a vehicle which could only approach half the speed of Henry's. In more modern terms, Thorpe drove a Firebird, but Henry drove a Trans Am. Catherine seems impressed with Henry's equipage, as well, in terms that referred to the additional speed of two horses pulling a light vehicle: "A very short trial convinced her that a curricle was the prettiest equipage in the world; the chaise and four wheeled off with some grandeur, to be sure, but it was a heavy and troublesome business, and she could not easily forget its having stopped two hours at Petty France. Half the time would have been enough for the curricle, and so nimbly were the light horses disposed to move, that, had not the general chosen to have his own carriage lead the way, they could have passed it with ease in half a minute."
One suspects that Catherine would have approved of an ox-cart had Henry Tilney been driving it, but I don't think that it was accidental that Jane Austen dwelt so long on the superior speed of the curricle, an attribute that John Thorpe claimed for his vehicle yet one that Henry seemed disinclined to dwell upon: "But the merit of the curricle did not all belong to the horses; Henry drove so well - so quietly - without making any disturbance, without parading to her, or swearing at them: so different from the only gentleman-coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with!" Henry is young, unmarried (for now), and comfortably well-off; thus he can afford not only the curricle, but the stabling and feeding of the two horses required to pull it. However, he does not boast upon these things as John Thorpe boasts of his own, lesser equipage; yet another example of the true superiority of Da Man!
Copyright © 2000 by Margaret C. Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.