"Very Knowing Gigs": Social Aspiration and the Gig Carriage in Jane Austen's Works

By Byrne, Aoife | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

"Very Knowing Gigs": Social Aspiration and the Gig Carriage in Jane Austen's Works


Byrne, Aoife, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


ATTITUDES TOWARD upward social mobility in the works of Jane Austen are both nuanced and contextually loaded. On the one hand, as Nicholas Roe has pointed out, Austen's novels dwell "on sections of English society that inhabit the vulnerable cusp or borderline between different groups and classes" (361), a group for whom she shows a very real sympathy. Nonetheless, Austen's values emerge where characters who practice deception to further self-interest are condemned by the narrative voice. This paper will deal chiefly with Austen's portrayal of this second group, those who mislead others in order to ascend to a higher social class. David Spring has argued that "Austen's real social milieu is not precisely that of the upper classes, the aristocracy and landed gentry, but rather of the 'pseudo-gentry.'" "Pseudo-gentry" refers to a group who "sought strenuously to be taken for gentry" (Spring 60), and, as Thomas Keymer points out, "personal mobility of status was becoming more achievable as Austen wrote" (394).

Keeping a carriage was one means through which people could achieve mobility of status. On a practical level, carriages opened up opportunities to travel to social events, but carriages also allowed their owners to exhibit their wealth. Of course, the specific model of carriage more subtly reflected its owner's income. Jane Austen's works are full of references to models, including the gig, the curricle, the barouche-landau, the chaise, and the phaeton. They all provide or augment revealing characterizations and modulations on class. Throughout Austen's works, her constructions of the gig carriage in particular have complex relationships with class. Austen portrays the gig as a particularly potent marker of its owner's status as nouveau riche or a member of the rising mercantile classes.

A gig was a simple, relatively affordable, two-wheeled carriage that was "drawn by a single horse and normally carried two people side by side" (Rogers 431). For Austen, the gig was a new invention; their wide popularization by the Tilbury coach-makers in Mount Street, London, coincided temporally with the first entry of "gig" in the OED in 1791. Toward the end of Austen's career in 1815, gig carriages in Britain were, as Stuart Piggott puts it, "ubiquitous" (161).

Gigs in Austen's works highlight their owner's social aspirations, and they illustrate contextual attitudes to those aspirations. Take, for instance, the scene in Sense and Sensibility (1811) in which Edward Ferrars discusses with Elinor Dashwood his lack of a profession:

"I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough; many young men, who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs." (119)

In this passage Edward is instinctively conscious of broad cultural nuances surrounding notions of class, fashion, and gentility. Equally, he is conscious of his own very personal relationship with these notions. Balancing his innate humility with his family's expectations for his training in a profession deserving of his rank, he makes canny observations on the connection between professions and class mobility. Peculiar here is Edward's statement that the law is "allowed to be genteel enough." Within a socially endorsed class system, his qualification appears contradictory; the word "allowed" is conspicuous in its summoning an absent, nameless social authority, while connotations of fluidity and upward social mobility in the word "enough" complicate the supposed inflexibility of the class system. The result is a paradoxical portrayal of the young men studying the law as genteel, but not quite genteel enough. It is, too, significant that Edward does not elaborate upon his family's negative opinion of the law as a profession; he merely hints at its rooting in broad notions of class. …

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