12 August 2015

This great ebbing surging traffic of London

From Jo Baker's novel Longbourn, which tells the well-worn story of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice from the house servants' perspective, comes this description of a coach journey into London circa 1813. It is told from the perspective of the Bennets' housemaid Sarah, who is strapped into the rumble-seat atop the chaise while Miss Elizabeth Bennet and company reside more comfortably inside. Sarah's perspective of London - her very first, much longed-for visit - is therefore seen facing backwards.

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The ground blurred beneath the humming wheels, and the sky was pale blue and clear above her, and from the other side of the calash she could hear the voices of the more comfortably situated passengers, and Sir William, who cried out, when they crossed a simple sluggish river choked with reeds, 'The mighty Thames!'

They skimmed along past high hedges, through villages strung along the road like beads upon a thread. They passed between deep fields of watercress, trickling with rills of chalk-clean water, smelling sharp and peppery and green. They passed through market gardens, the raised beds thick with growth, mulchy and warm. The fields grew smaller, subdivided, the market gardens more closely packed, with sheds and lean-tos built of clapboard and rough timber. They slower at a flock of geese that flapped and honked onto the broad grassy verge, chivvied there by a girl in a broad-brimmed hat who hissed back at them and swiped at them with a stick, and, after the chaise had passed, stared frankly back at Sarah, her face red and scrofulous. They clattered through a ford and water heaved up on either side in fountains. There was a smell of shit from the brown-skimmed fields, and the cattle stood thin and unmoving as though cut from painted tin. And then the road was sloping down, and there was more traffic, trailing long-wagons, painfully slow, bouncing gigs and carts, and post-chaises, and then a mail-coach thundering past; and then they were rattling over cobbles and deep into town, Sarah's head tilting back and her mouth falling open as she looked up at the buildings rearing above her like cliffs that stared at each other across a stream; and the stream was the traffic, and she herself was part of the traffic, this great ebbing surging traffic of London, the cabs and barrows and drays and carts and the people, just the endless variousness of the people: fishwives in raucous stinking gangs; barrow-boys with their jaunty caps and their bold eyes; a beggar in a filthy rag of a red coat who scooted along on stumps then fists, stumps then fists; a milkmaid with pails swinging from a yoke, whose milk looked bluish grey, and slopped queasily, and left bits on the insides of the buckets, and did not look like the milk at home at all. The streets were slick with dung, and there was a taste of soot in the air, and the smell of cesspits, and bad vegetables, and fish. And the noise - iron-clad wheels, iron-shod hooves, the cries of the costermongers and dockers, muffin-sellers and cabbies, and the crowds, and the jostling and pressing up close, and the horses of the coach behind nodding in tandem at her. Then a dirty-looking youth slipped between the carriages; he dodged up to her, and she thought he was going to say something, but he just made a grab for her skirts, ruffling them back: he slid his hand over the top of her stocking, and then in between her thighs. She pulled away, kicking out at him, fumbling her skirts down; he retreated, grinning, showing a black gap where his front teeth should have been. He was gone before he'd ever really been there, and left her shaking.

And to think it had once seemed a good idea to come here alone.

- Jo Baker, Longbourn, London, 2013, p.205-7.

See also:
History: Coach travel from London, 1658 & 1739, 4 October 2013
History: Stagecoach travel in the Old West, 19 March 2015
History: Public transport comes to Onehunga, 10 February 2015
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