The smart widow’s country carriage

When I was writing the first, and even the second, draft of The Realm of Silence, I called the carriage my heroine is driving up and down the Great North Road, to and from Edinburgh, a phaeton.

A high-perch phaeton for the sporting man around town — far too dashing for my widow, and built for show, not for comfort.

I knew a phaeton was a round-town vehicle, and that I’d be smacked by those who know better, so last week I went hunting for a four-wheel two horse carriage that a dashing, fashionable, but not scandalous widow might use when travelling. (The children and servants are in a travelling coach, but Susan prefers to drive herself as much as possible. As who wouldn’t.)

The story required that the carriage had room enough for two people in comfort and three at a squeeze, with one of them driving. I allowed for space behind for a servant, and a fold up top against the weather. And I found the carriage I needed, allowing for the fact that each carriage would have been custom-made, so Susan’s did not have to fit some factory production process, but could be made to her preferences (and my story).

A cabriolet — later, many of them became taxis, giving us the term ‘cab’

I’ve found some neat resources, which I share at the bottom of this post, and some interesting information.

I knew that phaetons came in high-perch and low, and that ladies might drive the later without risk to their reputation, but probably not the former. Cabriolets were an Italian invention that reached England late in the 18th century — another sporty vehicle, but this one entirely suitable for a lady, low slung between the single wheels, and pulled by a single horse. But, again, not what I was looking for.

A phaeton from later in the century, after the name began to be applied to a vehicle with four wheels.

But the field was vast. Carriages, even more than custom-made cars today, varied according to the needs and tastes of the owner around certain defined features. Number of wheels. Number of passengers. Seat for a driver-groom or not. Type of axle, wheel, and spring. Height from the ground. Open or closed. Rain cover or no cover. One horse, two, or up to six. And lots more.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, one enterprising coach builder created a four-wheel vehicle with some of the features of a cabriolet, and some of a phaeton. This hybrid cabriolet-phaeton was not a great success, but a few years of refinement, and it gave birth to the four-wheel cabriolet, the victorian, and several other comfortable but elegant carriages for town and country driving.

I’m postulating that in 1812, my Susan had one of the early successful models, and that she might well have chosen to bring it with her from London to Edinburgh and back again, driving it herself on fine days, perhaps with one or two of the children to keep her company.

A Glossary of Carriages:

The Slower Road:

The victorian was a popular carriage in the mid-19th century.