THROUGHOUT HUMAN HISTORY, AND CERTAINLY DURING THE REGENCY, there were two ways of getting from one’s front door to another place.1 Most people walked. However, walking was not practical for travel beyond a few miles, especially if one was well dressed and coiffed or the weather unpleasant, which it frequently is on the island of Britain. Town or city dwellers of means had the option of hiring a sedan chair, a small, usually enclosed one-person seat suspended on poles and carried by two sturdy men. Sedan chairs ultimately went out of use as European towns expanded beyond the confines of their medieval walls. Horace Walpole stated in a 1791 letter: “The breed of chairs is almost lost, for Hercules and Atlas could not carry anybody from one end of this enormous capital [London] to the other” (418).
If one wanted to go anywhere without walking, it was necessary to rely on other legs: the four that belonged to a horse. One might either ride on the animal’s back or be conveyed around in a vehicle drawn by one or more of them. Of course there were also oxen and donkeys: however, oxen could not be ridden and were not suitable for pulling anything other than carts or wagons; donkeys lacked the grace, speed, and beauty of horses.2 It was perhaps because the Austen family donkey was a docile and well-behaved creature that Jane Austen undertook, in the final months of her life, to learn to ride and drive it.3 Many times, carriages were not practical, especially for a short trip in one’s neighborhood or in an area with poor quality roads. Riding on horseback was often a more sensible option. Many gentlemen in the Regency years rode with ease and a good deal of skill. Ladies also rode horseback, also with skill, but with considerably less ease.
I thought it might be insightful, given my own interest in horses and riding, to examine the subject of ladies on horseback in Regency times, and throughout the Austen canon. What might the ability to ride a horse say about an Austen heroine? Does a woman on horseback in Austen’s novels stand as a metaphor for something else? When women do not ride, how does that inform us about their characters? What about Jane Austen’s own experiences with horses?
It was not cheap, especially in the city of London, to own a horse. There was the price of the horse itself, which in the early nineteenth century ranged from £30 for a functional saddle horse to over £70 for one that was showy and exceptional. Stabling and feeding the creature in a city would require approximately £30 per annum, which according to Daniel Pool was more than a year’s salary for a lower-level household servant (221). A horse owner would also need to plan for regular visits from a farrier. In addition to trimming hooves and applying new shoes, this specialized type of blacksmith was the closest thing in Regency days to a veterinarian (Adkins 296-97). Depending on the health of one’s horse, a farrier’s bill could amount to somewhere around five pounds per year. For those on country estates, there were also the expenses of maintaining a private stable, along with the salaries of grooms and stable boys. Saddles, blankets, bridles, whips, and spurs were all custom made, and, finally, a woman aspiring to ride horseback required specialized garments and accessories. These expenditures would all have added up to an initial out-of-pocket cost of somewhere around £175.4 After purchasing a horse, you could expect to spend between £75 and £100 a year to feed and maintain the animal, its tack, and your outfits. It follows that horseback riding was prohibitively expensive and only for people of means. Jane Austen underscores this fact in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne Dashwood must decline the gift of a horse from Willoughby (69). Most women riding horseback in Regency days would have been those of Jane Austen’s class or higher. The only other women in Britain who rode were jogging around bareback on the family farm horse on the way to or from the fields. Nobody was watching them, and they were most likely not riding properly.
Ladies and girls were obliged to ride “aside,” that is to say, on a sidesaddle. There was no choice in the matter. It was completely socially unacceptable for a lady to straddle a horse, and it had been so for well over two hundred years in western Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, ladies had ridden astride or pillion (sideways, behind a man) without social pressure or restriction.5 However, by the seventeenth century, things had changed. A lady did not spread her legs more than a few inches. Plenty of old wives’ tales and even advice from physicians featured discussions of the alleged negative consequences of riding astride for women and girls. They included impaired virginity, decreased fertility, the social horror of exposing one’s nether regions, and even accidental masturbation. While Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great were shown in equestrian paintings riding astride in men’s clothing, these royal ladies were outliers. No woman who valued her reputation would ever attempt to ride astride. “An Enquiry after Stretchit in Gloucestershire, or The Sailor’s Reply” serves as a fine contemporary illustration for the prevailing attitude. The lady on horseback is well dressed but obviously not riding on a sidesaddle. She asks a passing sailor on the road, “Is this the way to Stretchit?” His bawdy reply that he knows “a better way” perpetuates the attitude that proper ladies did not ride astride and should expect rude comments if they tried. This attitude would hold sway in the western world for more than a century.
Riding aside may have preserved a woman’s reputation, but sitting a sidesaddle meant overcoming some very serious and potentially life-threatening handicaps:
- it is nearly impossible to mount unassisted;
- one has no aids on the off side to guide and direct the horse, except for a relatively small and essentially decorative whip called a riding crop;
- a rider’s weight is off balance on the horse, and this makes horseback riding difficult if not impossible for a large or overweight woman;6
- sidesaddle technology during the Regency left much to be desired;
- long skirts could spook or trip up horses; and
- the excessively tight saddling that was thought necessary could injure the animal.
Regency era sidesaddles were custom made for both the horse and the rider. The technology used on them was haphazard and often unsafe. Sidesaddles were usually undecorated and featured a pair of prominent U-shaped pommels at the top. The rider’s right leg rested inside the “U.”
Until the widespread adoption in the 1830s of breakaway stirrups, the balance strap (a second saddle girth on the off side), and the leaping horn (an additional brace for the left leg, which made jumping and faster speeds more secure), an accident while riding sidesaddle would often result in debilitating injury or death. Pool suggests that attending to horseback riding injuries comprised a large share of surgeons’ work (251). Ladies on horseback are occasionally depicted with a strap around their thighs (see “L’Inconvenient des Perruques,” below). Whether to keep skirts from flying about or to make sure a lady stayed in her saddle, it was exceedingly dangerous. If her saddle girth slipped, the rider would be under the horse, having her brains dashed out by its hooves. If her horse tripped and fell, she would be crushed, with very little chance to jump free. Even with a breakaway stirrup, it is difficult to get off a sidesaddle in an emergency. Choosing to leap off deliberately is not a pleasant option (bad falls were common) but preferable to ending up under one’s horse or being dragged by a foot stuck in the stirrup.
Another unnecessary risk that women had to endure was the misperception that female horses are more docile and that it was somehow safer and more appropriate for a lady to ride a mare. A mare is very nearly as capable of bad behavior as a stallion, and probably more than one woman would have avoided accidents riding a gelding instead.
It was very ill advised and even foolhardy to ride alone. Deirdre Le Faye discusses incidents of robbery while traveling in Jane Austen’s day (137-39). Roads, which were in some parts of Britain not truly safe for passengers in carriages, were likewise unsafe for horseback riders. Even if there were no bandits, gypsies, or highwaymen in the neighborhood, a lady might, at any time, need someone to tighten the saddle girth, assist her to remount, retrieve fallen articles, or catch her runaway horse. In daring to ride alone, things could end badly, or at least embarrassingly. A prudent horsewoman would also have a gentleman in attendance. When Mrs. Bennet insists on Jane’s riding horseback to Netherfield Hall, there is no suggestion that a groom or servant would accompany her. Not only is Jane put in danger of social ridicule by riding unaccompanied and deliberately stranding herself overnight, she is also at risk for a riding accident or perhaps even being accosted by an undesirable in the neighborhood.
The watercolors of Diana Sperling, painted between 1812 and 1823, depict an aristocratic rural British family where most of the women are riding—and riding quite frequently. Diana and her sister Isabella start their equestrian careers riding the family’s donkeys. Diana’s pictures show them graduating to riding horses, but the trusty old donkeys are often still part of the scene. The paintings are whimsical and depict a less serious (and occasionally downright undignified) view of ladies on horseback. Socialites in London who wished to be seen on a horse could demonstrate their equestrian skills and attractive riding attire on London’s most famous bridle path, known as “Rotten Row.” No one was allowed to ride in the Row at a pace faster than a sedate trot. The Sperling family—and many other aristocratic women in rural Britain—rode more often and with more challenges. Diana and Isabella Sperling hunted, rode out without gentlemen to escort them, struggled to lead horses and donkeys through obstacles, and were regularly unhorsed (apparently without serious injuries). The ladies depicted in one of Diana Sperling’s watercolors, with no gentlemen escorting them, are attempting to coax a horse up an embankment. Those who are not on their mounts will probably make use of a nearby fence stile to resume riding.
The outfit worn by women on horseback is called a riding habit. It was not a split skirt, as is generally thought, but a gown very much in keeping with contemporary fashion. Penny Housden points out that Regency era riding habits so closely resembled walking costumes that fashion plate illustrators had to differentiate them by showing the model clearly holding a riding crop (35). The skirt was longer on or near the side so that it would completely cover the legs and feet while in the saddle, and many women had their dressmakers include a concealed loop on the side seam to facilitate walking in the garment. Riding habits were also used for travel in a coach. The brightly colored habits popular in the eighteenth century gave way to darker, more somber colors in the Regency, although in the early 1800s they were also white or cream-colored, in keeping with the popularity of white fabrics at the time and surprisingly good at concealing the dust. The habit was always long sleeved, and the outfit was not considered complete without gloves. It was common for the bodice and sleeves of a habit (or the spencer jacket worn with it) to be embellished with faux military trimmings. No lady left her house bareheaded; hats were absolutely necessary. Styles varied widely, but Regency-era hats, bonnets, and turbans donned for horseback riding were unfortunately all about looking elegant and were not constructed to provide any sort of protection to the head. Short laced boots were the footwear of choice, and Lord Osborne in The Watsons favors nankin boots (heavy cotton, low-heeled ankle boots that could be dyed to match a riding costume) for ladies. Despite the disadvantages of riding without some type of heel, plenty of contemporary fashion plates feature ladies on horseback who appear to be wearing nothing but thin, heel-less slippers.
Mounting one’s horse safely required two helpers. One was responsible for holding the animal steady while the lady mounted and settled herself in the saddle. The other person would give her the proverbial “leg up” by knitting the fingers together to provide a sort of “step.” The lady would place her right arm up on the saddle, left hand on her helper’s shoulder, then step with her left foot onto the proffered hands. The person rendering this assistance would then give her a light boost to propel her high enough to sit sideways on the saddle. The lady would then pivot her body to face forward, settle her right knee between the pommels, and place her left foot in the stirrup. A less gentlemanly assistant could take advantage of the rare opportunity to glimpse quite a bit of lower leg in the process.
After ensuring that her habit was draped gracefully, a lady would assume control of the reins, apply the crop to her horse’s side, and manage the animal on her own. Dismounting with grace also required some help. It was safest for a rider to place her hands on a gentleman’s shoulders for stability in dismounting from her horse. Mary Crawford is said in Mansfield Park to jump down from her mount without this assistance. While this may simply indicate her lack of riding experience, Jane Austen may be signaling to readers that Mary is not behaving as decorously as she should.
Since riding a horse was primarily for taking exercise or for short, practical trips, neither of which required speed, most Regency women would have ridden at a walk or sedate trot, with a groom or a gentleman, also on horseback, nearby. Fanny Price is clearly an Austen heroine in this category. Her relatively frail constitution and timid nature suggest that she is neither riding to the hounds nor jumping the ha-ha. Most ladies were encouraged to ride sedately to the hunt, take some refreshment, and then proceed home after the initial “tally ho” to dress for the hunt ball. Concessions were made to ladies who did hunt, which Gordon Mingay says was probably a slightly more sedate affair in the early 1800s than it became later in the century (36). Sidesaddle riding crops were usually equipped with a crook at the top, which would enable the rider to open gates while remaining in the saddle rather than obliging her to jump hedges and fences. Opening gates would slow her down, but she would be at much less risk. Of course there were some ladies (such as the Sperlings) who did ride with the gentlemen, took the jumps, and hoped not to be unhorsed or break their necks.
Engaging in a sport largely pursued by men must have been difficult for some women to resist. Certainly some genuinely thrilled to aggressive, hard riding, and there were others who took pride and pleasure in their horsemanship skills. The attitude is not unlike that of women who choose to engage in male-dominated extreme sports today. Jane Austen seems, in her description of Mary Crawford’s behavior on horseback, to imply that Mary is exactly this type of woman. She selfishly requisitions Fanny’s horse and masters the art of riding with astounding facility. There is even the strong possibility that for some men, watching a woman capable of handling a spirited horse was an attraction. Austen readers see this clearly in Lord Osborne’s conversation about ladies riding horseback in The Watsons: “‘A woman never looks better than on horseback’” (Later Manuscripts 115).
In her novels, we see a number of examples of Jane Austen’s female characters riding horses. Catherine Morland’s tomboy childhood in Northanger Abbey featured horseback riding, as it is on the list of activities Catherine preferred to more ladylike pursuits (7), and she and Eleanor Tilney briefly discuss horseback riding upon their first acquaintance (51). We cannot know whether Catherine was truly schooled to ride properly or just ambling around on a farm horse as a child. It does seem unlikely that any one of the ten Morland children would have had sufficient time and leisure to be very accomplished on horseback.
In Sense and Sensibility the Dashwood sisters find themselves having to give up their horses when their half-brother and sister-in-law assume ownership of the family estate (30). While this scene is not in the book, Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation includes a charming and largely correct depiction of the way a Regency lady would ride. Before leaving her home for good, Elinor Dashwood is attended by a gentleman, maintaining a sedate pace, riding aside and wearing a riding habit (although the costumer has taken some liberties with her outfit, her sidesaddle is a modern one, and she has no riding crop, a grave oversight on the part of the production designer). Later in the novel, Willoughby offers Marianne Dashwood the gift of a saddle horse from his own stable (68). Given that their entire household expenses were about £500 per annum—and we already know that the family would have needed about £75 a year to keep a horse—Marianne could not possibly finance the upkeep of a saddle horse and is obliged to decline the gift (69).
In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet coerces her daughter Jane to ride on horseback to a dinner engagement (34). Mrs. Bennet’s scheming has better than the desired effect, as Jane catches cold riding in the rain and must remain under Mr. Bingley’s roof until she recovers. As mentioned above, this episode also puts Jane at unnecessary risk for an accident. Observant readers will note the somewhat odd declaration that Elizabeth Bennet does not ride at all (35). Does Elizabeth Bennet’s not being a “horse-woman” suggest that Jane Austen was not either? We cannot really know, but it is tempting to consider.
Mansfield Park has the most frequent mention of ladies on horseback of all the Austen works. Fanny Price’s wealthy cousins Maria and Julia Bertram are said to ride their horses frequently. Fanny, who is initially terrified of horses, learns to ride on a pony. A gentle and agreeable six-year learning curve lessens her fear (81). When the pony dies, Fanny is deprived of the opportunity for exercise. Her health suffers (41) until her cousin Edmund intervenes and provides her with a lady’s saddle horse (43).
Mary Crawford is the Jane Austen woman who does the most riding. She requisitions Fanny’s new horse and commences immediately to learn how to ride it (77-82). The multitalented Mary, who seems to do everything she undertakes well, appears to learn in just a few sessions what it has taken Fanny six years to master, and Mary’s natural seat is admired by everyone. The selfish way Mary Crawford commandeers Fanny’s mare, however, and her fearlessness in the saddle on the grounds of Mansfield Park are an excellent, nonverbal illustration of her self-absorbed personality. Mary’s riding career is nearly as effective a tool as any of her speeches in informing us about her character. Her experience may suggest that Jane Austen herself regarded riding horseback as more unladylike than genteel.
It is most unlikely, given Mr. Woodhouse’s fixation on people’s health and the perils of everyday life throughout Emma, that he would ever have permitted his daughter to ride horseback. While he is never said to oppose Emma’s riding a horse, it is not difficult to imagine the clucking and fussing that would ensue if Emma were to emerge from her dressing room wearing a riding habit. That the most wealthy of Jane Austen’s heroines is not seen in the saddle may serve as a negative reinforcement. Some writers interpret Mr. Woodhouse as a sort of passive/aggressive ogre bent on controlling his daughter.7 A more kindly approach would be to look at Emma’s not riding as a conscious choice. Emma does not ride horses because she knows it would agitate her father; Jane Austen demonstrates a character’s devotion to a parent who may be fussy and a bit silly, but who is also someone that character chooses not to upset. Fortunately for her, Emma lives in a village where she is able to walk to most places she wishes to go.
The only woman who may be said to do any riding in Emma is Mrs. Cole, who is the owner of a donkey. The odious Mrs. Elton prattles about how suitable a donkey would be for country life. Though she declares that all the ladies attending the Donwell Abbey strawberry party should ride to it on donkeys, her romantic little plan fails to materialize (386).
There is no mention of Persuasion’s heroine Anne Elliot’s riding a horse, but the fact that she becomes the owner of a “very pretty landaulette” (272) might suggest that she may at least have had experience driving horses.8 On closer examination, though, a landaulet is actually a small, two-person coach with a separate, outside seat for the driver. It is difficult to imagine Anne Wentworth assuming the driver’s seat of such a vehicle, but given that she is the daughter of a baronet, it is safe to assume that she has some knowledge of and experience with horses. The fact that neither Anne nor her sister Elizabeth rides in the novel suggests that the Elliot family is in considerably reduced financial circumstances.
The novel fragment The Watsons contains perhaps the most interesting discussion of ladies riding horseback. In it, Lord Osborne and Emma Watson, who are not particularly well acquainted, converse awkwardly during an afternoon call (115-16). Lord Osborne asks Emma whether she favors nankin boots.9 Given that Regency gentlemen were neither supposed to study ladies’ feet nor discuss their footwear, his broaching the subject of “‘a neat ancle’” with a lady barely in his acquaintance is quite inappropriate. His familiarity with female footwear implies that he has had extensive experience boosting them up into the saddle and taking advantage of the opportunity to examine their legs. Emma steers around the suggestive comment. Lord Osborne fails to grasp how offensive he is, and then asks her bluntly whether she rides horseback (he probably already knows that she does not; her family does not even own a closed carriage). Emma says she does not ride, but then Osborne demonstrates further disregard for Emma’s economic and social sensibilities, blustering, “‘I wonder every lady does not.—A woman never looks better than on horseback.—’”
This exchange is arguably the clearest example in all Austen of a man making outright suggestive remarks to a woman. Even the boorish John Thorpe and the effusively phony Frank Churchill are not this brazen. Emma counters Lord Osborne with the practical retort that even if she wished to ride horseback, not every woman can afford to. We may assume from this exchange that Lord Osborne has little regard for or understanding of others’ need to be mindful of their purses. It is also not a stretch to infer that he finds the sight of a woman riding erotic. He is definitely more interested in signaling to Emma what he finds attractive in a woman than having a meaningful conversation with her. His comment perfectly reinforces that how a woman looks (whether on a horse or not) matters more than her convenience or safety. Emma’s refusal to take the bait or allow Lord Osborne to unnerve her is most satisfying. Unfortunately the fragment ends only a few pages later, so there is no opportunity to learn how Emma will deal with Lord Osborne and his fetishes. We do know that despite his superior social status and vast wealth, we don’t want to see Emma end up as “Lady Osborne.”
Jane Austen and riding
To my knowledge, there are no instances in her personal papers of Jane Austen herself actually riding a horse. She refers to several of her brothers’ saddle horses in numerous letters, so we know that the Austen family did own horses, but neither she, Cassandra, nor Mrs. Austen10 appears to do any riding. We cannot know whether they did or not. The Austens’ removal to Bath in 1801, accompanied by a general attempt to economize, probably meant that the Reverend and Mrs. Austen and their daughters did not own a horse thereafter.
Very near the end of her life, while living at Chawton Cottage, Austen does mention that she plans to learn how to ride and drive their donkey. She writes her niece Fanny Knight in a letter dated 23 March 1817 that her saddle (which would, of course, have been a sidesaddle) will be ready shortly and that she is eager to attempt riding the donkey. She tells Fanny later in the same letter that she has enjoyed a short but pleasant jaunt on the donkey’s back. She also reports on that first successful ride to another niece, Caroline Austen, in a letter dated 26 March 1817: “I have taken one ride on the Donkey & like it very much—& you must try to get me quiet, mild days, that I may be able to go out pretty constantly.” At this point she was becoming increasingly infirm, and riding or driving the donkey was likely the only way for her to go out. Even if she could have afforded to keep a horse at Chawton Cottage, it is possible that Jane Austen was afraid of them. In fact, there is a piece of evidence to suggest that possibility.
In her recent biography, Paula Byrne tells the sad story of Mrs. Anne Lefroy, one of the Austen family’s neighbors and Jane’s close friend (196). On 16 December 1804, Jane’s brother James Austen met Mrs. Lefroy riding on the road. Mrs. Lefroy, who was riding her horse into town for a brief shopping errand, was accompanied by a manservant also on horseback, probably a groom. She complained to James about her horse’s laziness and stupidity. On the return trip, the allegedly lazy and stupid creature unexpectedly bolted. The servant gave chase, but was unable to overtake his mistress. Probably fearing she would be thrown, Anne Lefroy jumped off. Her fall was not a good one; she hit her head and died only a few hours later, without ever regaining consciousness. Jane Austen and Mrs. Lefroy had enjoyed a relationship very much like that of mother and daughter. This terrible horseback accident rattled Jane, and for the rest of her life she was reminded annually of the tragedy, which had, unhappily, occurred on her birthday. Four years after, she composed a poem, “To the memory of Mrs. Lefroy, who died Dec:r 16.—my birthday.—written 1808.—” Its second stanza reads:
The day, commemorative of my birth
Bestowing Life & Light & Hope on me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth.
Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory!— (LM 248)
It is not unreasonable to suppose that the “bitter pang of torturing memory” kept Jane Austen away from horses forever after. It may also account for a slightly negative attitude toward ladies riding horseback in the novels.
In conclusion, some Austen heroines are not able or willing to ride, a circumstance that provides hints about the health and robustness of their respective family finances (Catherine Morland, the Dashwood sisters, and Anne Elliot). One rides to honor the wishes of a parent (Jane Bennet); another may be choosing not to ride at all out of concern for her elderly parent’s sensibilities (Emma Woodhouse). One rides demurely for exercise (Fanny Price) while her rival rides assertively to demonstrate her fitness (Mary Crawford). Yet another may be reflecting Jane Austen’s own indifference to riding (Elizabeth Bennet). Jane Austen’s most detailed discussion of women on horseback gives us one of her most brazen male characters (Lord Osborne) and the composed, controlled woman (Emma Watson) who faces him down. Ladies who ride (or do not ride) horses in Jane Austen’s novels are doing more than going from place to place. A lady on horseback in an Austen novel is a subtle but telling device that lends readers clues to both desirable and less seemly character traits of women and men.
1Railroads and bicycles were among the first genuine innovations in human transport in the thousands of years following the invention of the wheel. The railroad did not come into existence until long after the Regency. In her article on the history of bicycles, Elizabeth Palermo states that they were not practical transportation—especially for women—until they began to be mass produced in the 1870s.
4Approximate costs of horses, feed, stabling, tack, and equipment are roughly outlined in Sheryl Craig’s article and further detailed by Daniel Pool in his book. When costs are converted on www.measuringworth.com and Eric Nye’s table “A Method for Determining Historical Monetary Values,” £175 is in excess of £5,000, or near $8,000 in the twenty-first century.
5The wife of Bath in Canterbury Tales was riding astride: “And on hir feet a peire of spores sharpe” (“General Prologue” 475). She would have been equipped with only one spur if she were riding sidesaddle.
7Richard Jenkyns’s 2004 essay “The Prisoner of Hartfield” goes to great length to defend the idea that Mr. Woodhouse, far from being a merely fussy old man, is really a manipulative monster bent on keeping his daughter from assuming a normal life.
8Janet Todd’s notes to Persuasion state that a landaulet was “considered a lady’s vehicle, . . . a valuable present of independence from a man of means but not riches” (391). Independence? Perhaps. However, Anne Wentworth will still require a driver.
10According to Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Cassandra Leigh, Jane Austen’s mother, was married in her red riding habit (14), which suggests that the couple left for their brief and inexpensive honeymoon on horseback. Any later instances of Mrs. Austen’s riding a horse elude this writer.