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Wednesday, June 2

Jane Austen Was Fit......Oh, Yes She Was!!!!!!

I don’t know about you but I do try and do some sort of exercise to keep fit reasonably regularly. However, I hate going to the gym and with a family and work commitments I find it impossible to find the time and commitment to take part in team games such as football and cricket these days. To tell you the truth I’m a little too old for team games anyway. My joints wouldn’t last the pace. I know this because, a short while ago I was persuaded to play in a six a side football game one evening. It took me weeks to recover. Yes, just too old and not able to put the time commitment in for team sports. What I do though is cycle a lot. If I can, weather permitting, I cycle to school and sometimes cycle to the local shops when I need to. Also, every couple of years I invest in a pair of expensive NIKE running shoes and I go running. Honestly, I do run regularly, not far, but regularly, three or four times a week. During the holidays I might even get to run around Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. I read somewhere once that the best fitness regimes, the ones you and I are most likely to keep to, are those that fit into our everyday lives and are part of our day and not an add on. Hence my cycling to school. I need to get to school and cycling is a way to do that. Walking distances is a good one. Why get the bus or drive when you can walk?

This brings me to Jane. I was thinking about what her fitness levels might be. In her letters and novels there is a mass of evidence that shows how Jane kept fit. She might not have thought of it in terms of keeping fit, because her exercise was an integral part of her everyday life. She did exercise a lot. If you read her letters she has invariably walked to or from somewhere. She must have walked some distance everyday of her life.

To Cassandra on Wednesday 29th may 1811.

Harriet Benn sleeps at the Grt House tonight and spends tomorrow with us& the plan is we should all walk with her to drink tea at Farringdon.”

A matter of a few miles walk there and the same back.

Chawton to Farringdon

Farringdon (Above and below)

And another example, Sunday 8th September 1816 writing from Chawton to Cassandra.

Our day at Alton was very pleasant-Venison quite right- Children well behaved & Mr & Mrs Digweed taking kindly to our charades & other games…….We had a beautiful walk home by Moonlight.”

Alton is about two miles from Chawton. So as well as the activities she got up to while in Chawton there was a two mile walk to get there and two miles to walk back.

Alton High Street today.

Walks like these appear very often in Jane’s letters. Sometimes rain and bad weather conditions prevent walking but generally there is a walk of some sort. Walking distances at a vigorous pace help with stamina and generally all over muscular body fitness.

On other occasions, as well as walking, Jane goes out on her donkey.

On Thursday 13th March 1817 Jane writes to Fanny Knight. Jane had been ill for a while, maybe a presentment of her final illness to come but she wasn’t giving up her exercise.

I am tolerably well again, quite equal to walking about & enjoying the air, & by sitting down and resting a good while between my walks, I get exercise enough.-I have a scheme however for accomplishing more, as the weather grows springlike. I mean to take to riding the Donkey.It will be more independent & less troublesome than the use of the carriage,& I shall be able to go about with Aunt Cassandra in her walks to Alton & Wyards.- “

She was riding a donkey around the country lanes of Hampshire for miles. Can you imagine what that will do for the strength in her forearms and inner thighs.

The road to Gosport

In 1808 Elizabeth, Edwards wife died soon after childbirth. It was a eleventh birth in as many years. Jane’s two nephews Edward and George came down from Winchester College to stay with Jane at Castle Square while their poor grieving father arranged the funeral.

A letter to Cassandra dated Monday 24th October 1808 describes the care and attention their aunt Jane gave to the two boys. Jane tried to keep them occupied with excursions out into the area around Southampton.

We had a little water party yesterday; I and my two nephews went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the 74, and walked home, and it was so much enjoyed that I had intended to take them to Netley today; the tide is just right for our going immediately after noonshine, but I am afraid there will be rain; if we cannot get so far, however, we may perhaps go round from the ferry to the quay. I had not proposed doing more than cross the Itchen yesterday, but it proved so pleasant,and so much to the satisfaction of all, that when we reached the middle of the stream we agreed to be rowed up the river; both boys rowed great part of the way, and there questions and remarks, as well as their enjoyment, were very amusing; George’s enquiries were endless, and his eagerness in everything reminds me of his Uncle Henry.”

From Castle Square to the Itchen ferry is a half mile walk.The currents in the Itchen River are strong. Southampton is a major port and is unusual, partly due to it’s geographical location at the head of a sunken valley with a very deep draught, in that it has two high tides a day. The currents occurring in Southampton Water and the Solent are very strong going both ways. To row needs a lot of strength. The fishermen and boatmen of the Itchen Village were experienced sailors in those waters. George and Edward did well to row so well. Whether Jane took her turn we don’t know.

The letter relates how they looked into a 74. This was a British battleship of the front line. Nelson’s ship the Victory was a 100 gunner. A 74 gunner was next in size.
Nelson's Victory at Portsmouth

It must have been having repairs in the shelter of the Itchen River near Northam. To clamber up and down the vertical wooden stairs inside a man of war takes a lot of arm and leg strength and agility. After this they walked home to Castle Square from Northam another two to two and a half miles. Jane had a quite a, “work out,” that day and kept up with two energetic teenage boys.

The Itchen River present.

The Itchen river in the 18th century

If ever you visit Jane’s cottage at Chawton you can see the well which was their only source of water, in the back yard. Jane, her mother and sister did have a couple of servants but they had to help with the chores too. Lugging buckets of water out of a well is no easy activity.

Jane wrote a lot about going to balls both in her letters and in her novels. We have all seen the sumptuous balls portrayed in the Jane Austen films. These are slightly misleading. The dances portrayed in the films are elegant and gentle affairs. The dances that were most prevalent at the time were more akin to country-dances which involved a lot of leaping about and large leg movements. Jane took part often in these sorts of c=dances. While living in Southampton for instance she attended balls at the Dolphin Hotel.
Tuesday 24th January 1809 from Castle Square to Cassandra;

We were very well entertained, & could have staid longer but for the arrival of my List shoes to convey me home, & I did not like to keep them waiting in the cold. The room was tolerably full & the Ball opened by Miss Glyn;-The Miss Lances had partners, Capt D’auvergnes friend appeared in regimentals, Caroline Maitland had an Officer to flirt with, & Mr John Harrison was deputed by Capt Smith, being himself absent to ask me to dance-Everything went well you see.”

The Dolphin Hotel Southampton.

Close up of the exterior of the ballroom in The Dolphin Hotel

18th century Prints of people dressed for abll and some nifty 18th century dance moves.

Jane led a very active and energetic life. People in the 18th century did. She was no Arnold Swartzenegger but she must have been slim with not an ounce of extra fat on her. Her figure must have been very trim. With our cars and home comforts we need to make an extra effort to keep fit.

Posted by Tony Grant, London Calling


Raquel said...


the Nelsons' Victory, how gorgeous!

I had never thought about these Jane's walks and how it must keep her fit.

I should be back to 18th century to keep fit myself.

Tony, your post is wonderful!

Enid Wilson said...

It's sad though she's fit and yet died so young. Thanks for all the lovely photos.

Really Angelic

Meredith R. said...

Intellectually I know that people walked everywhere during the Regency period. Your post placed Jane's letters and comments in perspective. I wonder how many miles she must have walked on a typical day?

Nonna Beach said...

Delightful photos, history and descriptions Tony ! I almost felt like I was lucky you are to live so close to all of the wonderful places in Jane's life. Thank you and welcome to the party!!!

ChaChaneen said...

Lurved this post!!! It was a fresh perspective to see the great photos with the very informative inside information from Jane's letters. Such a treat, thank you for sharing!!