The prospects of Mr. Bennet’s five charming daughters, destined to be destitute upon their father’s death given the patriarchy of British law, improve considerably when the wealthy bachelor, Mr. Bingley, rents Netherfield estate in rural Herefordshire and invites them to a country ball. Sparks fly between Mr. Bennet’s eldest, Jane, and Mr. Bingley; while second daughter Elizabeth is quite put off by Mr. Bingley’s closest friend, the considerably wealthier Mr. Darcy. When Mr. Bingley’s sisters, Caroline and Louisa, invite Jane to Netherfield for dinner with intentions beyond dessert, Jane is caught in a rain shower, develops a bad cold, and is forced to remain at Netherfield. Dutiful Elizabeth makes a recuperative visit where she meets the aloof Mr. Darcy once again, thereby establishing the particulars under which the events of Pride and Prejudice unfold.
In the twenty-first century, any self-respecting publishing house would toss aside a novel whose plot hinges on such a flimsy device. Why would a young woman, regardless how severe her cold, remain at the home of a relative stranger for several days, when her own home, warm bed, loving sisters, and eccentric parents are only three miles away? That’s right: the distance between Longbourne and Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice is a mere three miles.
Most of us, in and out of our cars all day, don’t give traveling three miles a second thought. Our vehicles take us, effortlessly, to work, to the grocery store, to the gym. I have a friend who drives five miles to simply reach the park in which he subsequently takes a walk.
However, three miles in 1813 rural England, before motor vehicles or paved roads, was a sizable distance. Although the Bingley’s might have delivered Jane back to her family in a carriage, nursing a sick neighbor in situ was both chivalrous and a welcome diversion in a world that hadn’t gotten around to inventing movies and Instagram.
I often marvel upon the delights of Pride and Prejudice, predicated by a measly three miles, as I go about my own life. As a man without a car, the distances I travel are significantly abbreviated compared to motorized folk. Under my own power, transit times run long, and weather is a factor.
The ride to my boyfriend Dave’s house takes me through beautiful New England drumlins and forests, past ponds, through quaint towns. But it takes four or five hours for me to pedal there. I do it in daylight, since bicycling at night outside the Cambridge/Somerville/Boston triangle feels dangerous, no matter how many lights I wear. I endure the prevailing wind, though I try to avoid rain, and always steer clear of snow. Of course, it is no hardship to go the distance for my special someone. Yet, back in the days before pandemic, when friends invited friends to dinner, I would often bunk on a suburban sofa rather than pedal home in the dark.
Why do I choose to put this restriction on my ability to travel through the world? I know how to drive. I can afford to own a car. There are the faux-noble reasons: that traveling within the world is a richer experience than traveling through it; that cycling is meditative; that it’s sustainable; that I’ve integrated fitness into the fabric of my life. But there are also the ignoble reasons: an antsy temperament that chafes behind the wheel; a guy with lots of time thumbing a world that worships busyness; an individualist temperament that’s borderline peculiar. There’s no mystery as to why I had to go much, much further than three miles to find a boyfriend.
Ultimately, I love how traveling by bicycle slows me down and sets me apart from a world that, as far as I’m concerned, is frantic for no reason beyond infatuation with speed.
We love Pride and Prejudice because we admire Elizabeth Bennet’s fiery independence and Mr. Darcy’s quiet generosity. We mirror ourselves—our better selves—in these substantial people of substantial character. So I can be excused for organizing my life to be a bit more like theirs as I take my sweet time in getting from here to there. My head fantasizes as my legs spin in pursuit, however slowly, of my Jane Austen life.