Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The mail coach

I came across this interesting essay by Thomas de Quincey on mail coaches.

It's well worth reading for all kinds of little details about this revolutionary form of transportation, but I was delighted by this section.

To set it up, de Quincey talks mainly of his enjoyment of the mail coach during his student days, when he and his fellows prized the outside seat where they had air, views, and even a chance of driving the coach sometimes. They looked down on those who paid more to be confined in a stuffy inside seat.
(This painting, Messrs. Richard Costar and Christopher Ibberson's Ludlow to Worcester Mail Coach on the Road, 1811 is from the web site, where you can buy a reproduction painting of it.)

"We conducted this inquiry on metaphysical principles; and it was ascertained satisfactorily, that the roof of the coach, which some had affected to call the attics, and some the garrets, was really the drawing-room, and the box was the chief ottoman or sofa in that drawing-room; whilst it appeared that the inside, which had been traditionally regarded as the only room tenantable by gentlemen, was, in fact, the coal-cellar in disguise.

Great wits jump. The very same idea had not long before struck the celestial intellect of China.

Amongst the presents carried out by our first embassy to that country was a state-coach. It had been specially selected as a personal gift by George III.; but the exact mode of using it was a mystery to Pekin. The ambassador, indeed, (Lord Macartney,) had made some dim and imperfect explanations upon the point; but as his excellency communicated these in a diplomatic whisper, at the very moment of his departure, the celestial mind was very feebly illuminated; and it became necessary to call a cabinet council on the grand state question–"Where was the emperor to sit?”

The hammer-cloth happened to be unusually gorgeous; and partly on that consideration, but partly also because the box offered the most elevated seat, and undeniably went foremost, it was resolved by acclamation that the box was the imperial place, and, for the scoundrel who drove, he might sit where he could find a perch.

The horses, therefore, being harnessed, under a flourish of music and a salute of guns, solemnly his imperial majesty ascended his new English throne, having the first lord of the treasury on his right hand, and the chief jester on his left. Pekin gloried in the spectacle; and in the whole flowery people, constructively present by representation, there was but one discontented person, which was the coachman.

This mutinous individual, looking as blackhearted as he really was, audaciously shouted, “Where am I to sit?" But the privy council, incensed by his disloyalty, unanimously opened the door, and kicked him into the inside. He had all the inside places to himself; but such is the rapacity of ambition, that he was still dissatisfied. “I say,” he cried out in an extempore petition, addressed to the emperor through the window, “how am I to catch hold of the reins?” “Any how,” was the answer; “don’t trouble me, man, in my glory; through the windows, through the key-holes–how you please.”

Finally this contumacious coachman lengthened the checkstrings into a sort of jury-reins, communicating with the horses; with these he drove as steadily as may be supposed. The emperor returned after the briefest of circuits; he descended in great pomp from his throne, with the severest resolution never to remount it. A public thanksgiving was ordered for his majesty’s prosperous escape from the disease of a broken neck; and the state-coach was dedicated for ever as a votive offering to the god Fo, Fo–whom the learned more accurately called Fi, Fi."

Nothing to do with mail coaches, though transportation plays a part -- Chalice of Roses is a January book, which means it'll be out soon. My Grail story is medieval, set near Glastonbury, and you can read the beginning here.

Jo :)

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