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Artikel: Taking a turn : Exercise in Jane Austen's England

Lady going for golden hour walk in nature
Elizabeth Bennet

Taking a turn : Exercise in Jane Austen's England

Woman walking in nature at golden hour

If you stick your head out the door in the earlier hours of the morning, before the commuter rush has started in earnest, you might notice something strange. Indeed, you might wonder if something terrible has happened. What is everyone running from? 

Those of us who have even a single fitness-focused friend will be able to tell you that marathon season is in full swing, and in our cities and suburbs the running bug is sweeping through communities, particularly of twenty and thirty-somethings, who are looking for new ways to get fit and socialise. This past weekend, the streets of London were filled with tens of thousands of runners and spectators for the TCS London Marathon, with many more tuning in to watch the action on their televisions. If you were paying attention at all to the event, you might be feeling inspired. Today, we’re wondering what Jane Austen might have made of all this running malarkey. Let’s have a look. 

From Footrace to Marathon

What we think of as the modern marathon - a race measuring exactly 26 miles and 385 years - is a relatively recent phenomenon. The marathon takes its name from the distance between the Greek town of Marathon and Athens, which, according to legend, a Greek soldier ran to let the city know that the Greeks had defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon, before swiftly dropping dead. Makes you wonder why we would voluntarily sign up for it. The modern marathon would not be invented until 1896 when it was introduced as an event in the first modern Olympics, designed to give the new games a flavour of ancient games. It would not be until the 1960s that women would be able to participate in the marathon, so it’s safe to say that if you whizzed past Jane Austen in your HOKAs and running shorts, she’d have thought something was very wrong indeed. 

This isn’t to say that the idea of a footrace would be alien to Jane Austen. You might be familiar with the fact that boxing was incredibly popular at the time, particularly as it allowed men to make a fast quid betting on their favourite fighter (fans of Bridgerton will recognise this practice from the first season). Well, running was no different. In the late 1700s, the six-day race was born. It’s exactly what it sounds like - you walk, or jog, as far as you can in six-days. It was popularised by a gentleman by the name of Foster Powell a keen walker who caused a stir in 1773 by attempting to traverse the 200 miles between London and York - and back - over six days. Though he had many detractors, Powell was met in London on his return by a crowd of over five thousand fans after covering the 400 mile distance in five days and eighteen hours. This triggered a competitive vogue to see who could outdo Powell. So even though Austen might not have known of the marathon outside of her Classics, she may well have been familiar with the concept of what would someday become the ultramarathon. 

Ladylike exertion 

As we’ve already established, it wasn’t until the 1960s that women could run official marathons, and not until the 70s that running for fitness became trendy for all genders. So, if you were a young lady in Jane Austen’s England, how might you stay fit? 

Of course, it has always been necessary for the working classes to walk - maintaining horses and carriages is costly, so for many it would be the only viable way to get around. However, in the Regency, it was considered proper for young ladies to take a morning walk and dresses would be tailored or designed specifically for walking, with shorter hems so that they did not drag along the ground. 

We have frequently, in our observations, found occasion to lament, in the present style of female dress, a want of that proper distinction which should ever be attended to in the several degrees of costume. For instance, the short gown, so appropriate and convenient for walking, and pursuing morning avocations or exercises, intrudes beyond its sphere when seen in the evening or full dress. It is in the splendid drawing-room that the train robe appears with all that superiority which gives pre-eminence to grace, and dignity to beauty.

“A walking-dress cannot be constructed too simply. All attractive and fancy articles should be confined to the carriage-dress, or dinner and evening apparel. We shall here particularly address the order of females who may not have the luxury of a carriage, and yet be within the rank of gentlewomen. This class composes treble the number of those to whom fortune has bestowed the appendages of equipages and retinue. We shall, in our observations, particularly aim at increasing their respectability, by leading them to adopt a style of adornment, which, while it combines fashion and elegance, shall be remarkable only for its neatness and simplicity.” 

 - from The Mirror of the Graces, 1811, an instructional guide for young ladies 

Ladies of import might take their walk in the glorious grounds around their houses, enjoying their manicured gardens each morning after breakfast. Gravel pathways would allow ladies to walk outside without getting muddy. Walking would form an important part of courting, with ladies and gentlemen using it as an opportunity to get to know if they were a good match - chaperoned, of course. 

I'm very fond of walking. -- Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (2005)  (… | Pride and prejudice 2005, Pride and prejudice, Elizabeth  bennet

The limits of propriety 

That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. …Mr. Darcy was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone.

-Pride and Prejudice 

Many of Jane Austen’s characters are fans of a brisk outdoor jaunt. Anne Elliot and Wentworth’s relationship often progresses through their walks together, and Jane Fairfax’s arrival in Emma is occasioned by a prescription of taking more air. Even the finest ladies of Jane Austen’s novels enjoy a “turn”, with Caroline Bingley enticing Elizabeth Bennet to take a turn about the parlour. 

However, young ladies must be careful to avoid improper exertion. As in the quote above, it is possible to see that any of the panting, sweating or grass stains of a modern trail run would make a Regency lady swoon in horror. Yet it is in their flouting of such strictures that Jane Austen’s protagonists really come alive, and in which we can detect the novelist’s nascent feminism. In Elizabeth Bennet’s determination to take to the outdoors, Jane Austen sends up ridiculous ideas of propriety when it comes to the practicalities of getting around. I like to think that the sight of women hiking up mountains and crossing the finish line at marathons would delight Austen!

What we can learn from Austen 

Whilst more of us than ever are getting into fitness and embracing the great outdoors, it’s easy to get bogged down in all the technical details. Chat of kit, proper shoes, running watches and personal bests can make the whole thing feel like a very complicated science, which whilst fun for some people can be intimidating for others. But that needn’t be the case. 

I think the best thing we can learn from Jane Austen when it comes to exercise is the practice of joyful movement. In Austen’s novels, characters walk to take in nature, socialise and court. They dance joyfully and scorn any grumpy gentleman - ahem, Mr Darcy, ahem - who refuses to take to the dancefloor. Some of them are even willing to get their skirts dirty! So, forget about the goals and the gadgets and get moving in any way that brings you happiness. We think Austen would approve. 

Have you recently taken up running, walking or hiking? Share your top tips in the comments. 

Ellen White is editor of the Jane Austen blog. If you would like to contribute to the blog, she would love to hear from you. Follow this link for more details.

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