Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Move over Sherlock, Jane Austen was there first

Cork County library celebrated the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice on Monday with three actors depicting scenes from the book, of which I've become a complete devotee. My obsession started only a year ago when PD James brought out Death Comes to Pemberley, a crime novel conceived as a Pride and Prejudice sequel. More of this another day. But crime does have some connection to what I want to say now.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice last month, my interest was piqued by something I had previously missed. The reprobate Wickham having eloped to London with Lydia, Mr Bennet attempts to track them down. He traces them from Brighton as far as Epsom, where, he finds out, they had transferred to a Hackney coach. Now comes the interesting bit.  Mr
Bennet’s next move is attempting to discover the stand and number of the hackney-coach Wickham had hired, in order to get what information he could from the driver.  (Sadly this initiative was not crowned with success.)

Two surprises for me here. Firstly, that in 1813 a licensing system for Hackney carriages was already in place. And secondly, I was full sure that Sherlock Holmes was the first fictional character to detect using this method.  But no, almost 90 years before the great detective tracked down a villain by means of a Hackney carriage number, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Jane Austen anticipated this detection technique.

A Hackney coach around 1800 from a Jane Austen blog
As to the licensing of Hackney carriages, this, I now discover, was instituted in 1654. That’s about two centuries earlier than I would have guessed.

I have further and better particulars if you want them: extracts from Pride and Prejudice and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and some information about a 1654 Parliamentary ordinance for the regulation of Hackney-coachmen. Also some comments on the word Hackney.


  1. Thanks Peter! I am going to publish your tip on JASBRA's blog!

    Adriana Zardini

  2. My dear fellow, has it not occurred to you by now that the primary reason for Arthur Conan Doyle's depicting a detection technique in The Hound of The Baskervilles which Jane Austen had used 90 years earlier in Pride & Prejudice, was that Doyle was himself a serious, if mostly covert, Janeite, and he was paying homage to the writer whom he admired most in the world--Jane Austen!?

    It's not a coincidence, I assure you.

    For nearly a thousand posts about Jane Austen as the ultimate literary trickster, feel free to browse in my blog, including these two recent ones in which I draw strong parallels between Jane Austen and my favorite TV show, The Mentalist, which of course is about a latter day Sherlock Holmes:

    Weston, Florida
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  3. Ruth Williamson of the Jane Austen Society in New Zealand tells me that “Emma” is sometimes touted as the first detective style novel, by virtue of the clues judiciously planted for readers to deduce that it was Frank Churchill who arranged for Jane Fairfax to have a piano. Am re-reading Emma now …