Pure filth

When it comes to walking, be independent and indefatigable, like Jane Austen's heroines — and Jane Austen herself

Laura Freeman

“I wanted to walk with her, but she would not suffer it”: Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill in an 1890s illustration

“I hope you saw her petticoat,” says Miss Caroline Bingley when Elizabeth Bennet turns up at Netherfield to visit her ailing sister Jane in Pride and Prejudice. “Six inches deep in mud.” Miss Bingley, her own skirts and slippers pristine, continues: “To walk three miles or four miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.” The other Bingley sister joins in: “Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister has a cold? Her hair so untidy, so blowsy!”

When it comes to walking, be a Bennet, not a Bingley. Be conceitedly independent, be windswept, be muddy. Jump over stiles and spring over puddles as Lizzie does. Mr Darcy approves, anyway. The exercise, he observes, has brightened Miss Bennet’s “fine eyes”.

Jane Austen described herself as a “desperate walker”. Desperate meant keen, booted, indefatigable. No field too sodden, no path too pitted. “We have found time,” she wrote from Kent to her sister Cassandra, “to visit all the principal walks of this place, except the walk round the top of the park, which we shall accomplish probably today.” A lady was expected to be accomplished at drawing, singing, painting tables, covering screens, netting purses. Why not an accomplished trudger, too?

The Kent letter is quoted in Anne-Marie Edwards’s short walking guide Jane Austen’s England ( I.B. Tauris, £8.99), a lively gazetteer to places Jane (always Jane, never Austen) lived, stayed and strolled in. In Bath, she walked “almost all day long”. In London, she grew footsore, but could not afford a carriage: “I had naturally small right to be parading about London in a barouche.” In the spring of 1817 in Winchester, her health failing, she wrote: “By sitting down and resting a good while between my walks, I get exercise enough.”

The guide is very much a “turn right, turn left, leave the car in the village” kind of book. For a walking woman’s manifesto, turn to the novels proper. “I am very sorry to hear, Miss Fairfax,” worries Mr Wodehouse in Emma, “of your being out this morning in the rain. Young ladies should take care of themselves. Young ladies are delicate plants. They should take care of their health and their complexion. My dear, did you change your stockings?” Jane Fairfax, not such a delicate plant as Mr W supposes, insists she “cannot possibly give up my early walk”.

I’m with Miss Fairfax. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night will stay this walker from her rounds. I am out in all weathers, in boots and mackintosh, happiest up to my ankles in mire. Mr Wodehouse is right about one thing, though. Wear two layers of socks for frost on the ground — and hang wet stockings on the Aga when you’re home.

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