Love Those Muscles!

Love Those Muscles!

I’ve just been reading over Diana J. Oaks excellent post from January of this year on exercise in the Regency world. How Austen’s characters get exercise is very-well documented by her through many quotes from some of the books. In my upcoming release, Darcy’s Awakening, I find also myself concerned with how the gentlemen of that era stayed fit in ways beyond horse-back riding and walking (and of course dancing) like the ladies do. When we think of Colin Firth’s body under his wet shirt as he emerges from the pond in front of Pemberley in that classic BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, we envision a muscular torso of the kind we tend to find attractive these days. Yet that kind of body doesn’t always come naturally, as we know, and in our modern world, guys work out pretty hard, usually at the gym, to achieve those kinds of results. Two hundred years ago, it’s easy to imagine farmers and other laborers involved in the kinds of activities on a daily basis that would pump up their muscles, but what about the gentlemen, especially those who spent a fair amount of time in cities like London or Bath. How did they keep their bodies toned?

Finding information about gentlemen’s exercise is a little more challenging than that about ladies, mostly because Jane’s books are primarily concerned with the activities of the female characters, and we know that they did a lot of walking. What I gleaned from the information I have found is that gentlemen got their exercise mostly from riding and hunting, walking of course, and that, depending on their station, might have fenced, boxed, rowed, wrestled or sailed. In the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, we see Mr. Darcy fencing, though Austen certainly never mentions it in the book. In Becoming Jane, Tom Lefroy boxes, plays sports, and, ahem, swims in the buff – as the character of Jane shockingly observes, but he is hardly of Mr. Darcy’s class.

In an article in the UK Telegraph featuring a Regency-era book called British Manly Exercise, by Donald Walker, an excerpt from the book advises: “As part of the regime a gentleman must gradually increase his level of exercise to 20 to 24 miles of walking and running a day…” Wow. I could see riding that much in a day, but walking? That’s a lot of steps. And yet, manor houses such as Pemberley were designed with grounds that encouraged a great deal of walking, and also often had galleries in which one could walk up and down on rainy days for their exercise.

In my imagination, a gentleman farmer might have had more intrinsic means of exercise than a man of higher social standing among the landed gentry. I am thinking of the difference between Jane’s own father, and someone like Mr. Darcy. While Mr. Austen (though perhaps not Mr. Bennet) might have been apt to get his hands dirty on their small farm at Steventon, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Darcy doing the actual physical labor required to keep his grounds running.

That is why I decided to have my Mr. Darcy be a more hands-on landowner. I want the reader to not only imagine that he is well-muscled, but why. So, since we all know, thanks to the housekeeper of Pemberley, Mrs. Reynolds, that Mr. Darcy is an excellent landlord to his tenants, I decided to make him a little more down-to-earth. In a brief passage from Darcy’s Awakening I suggest: “Besides participating in the kinds of exercise that gentlemen of his rank often partook of, such as hunting, rowing, and fencing, when he visited his tenant farmers, he often helped them with the physical activity of caring for animals, lifting and carrying bales of hay, moving stones, and even building fences. He chopped wood for the widowed and the weak, helped build houses, fell trees, and anything else that required doing on his land. He was not one to wait for others to do work that needed to be done though he could have hired a hundred men to do it. It was one of his great secrets, even from Caroline, that, unlike the people of high society that he associated with, he liked the feeling of working with his hands and the accomplishment of it.”

I like to imagine Mr. Darcy, while not exactly trimming hedges and that kind of thing, actively helping the people who live off his land. Additionally, it serves as a way to help us imagine him as muscular as Mr. Firth was back in the ’90s. Now, I ask, what do you imagine Mr. Darcy and other Austen heroes doing to stay in shape?

23 Responses to Love Those Muscles!

  1. Excellent post! I agree with you, and also wrote my Mr. Darcy version as being more hands-on. Specifically, he helps train the horses bred by Pemberley estate. Then, as you point out, those vast parklands had both the strolling trails via the gardens, but also the wild hills and forested areas. Why not have a Darcy who likes to climb and get a bit dirty from time to time? Work up a sweat, so to speak!

    I doubt too many men outside of the common laborer had six-pack abs and solid man-boobs – LOL! But then again, maybe Mr. Darcy was the exception! 😉

  2. I’d like to picture Mr. Darcy involved with martial arts, of course (ahem 🙂 ) but of course that had not yet been introduced to England. Fencing and boxing come the closest, and there is something really, really attractive about a man who knows how to swing a sword. So I just have to content myself with that mental image.

    • Oh, and I should add that I have used swords in my martial arts and can affirm that it is very, very good exercise. Those swords are heavier than they look, and you also have to have the right footwork with them. There’s a lot of moving back and forth. Ten minutes of intense sword practice every day would do wonders for a man’s physique in no time.

  3. Thanks for such an interesting post Georgina. For many people in those times, I guess walking was the only way of getting around, unless you had money. Body image has changed so much over the years, that I wonder what was considered “buff” back in Regency times. I think we all like our heroes to be active, fit people and thankfully our lovely authors manage to find ways to at least partially fulfill that expectation.

    I have a feeling that people who’ve never ridden, just don’t realise how much effort goes into it. It’s not simply a question of sitting there and steering. My riding days, sadly, are long gone due to a back problem, but I remember it with great fondness.

  4. My own DH is nothing like Mr Collins but he also gets his exercise by caring for the garden and yard. He actually cuts the grass with a scythe! Neighbours have offered to lend him their riding mowers but he prefers scything. He turns the garden beds, clears out the dead leaves, prunes the trees and bushes, etc. No need to go to the gym!

    Fencing is very strenuous too. One JAFF story I read had Darcy and Fitzwilliam wrestling with each other! (So sorry I don’t remember which story this was. Apologies to the author because it was one I enjoyed.) But yes I would think riding and walking would be the two major forms of exercise. And how about swimming and rowing? And going up and down all those staircases (LOL!)?

    A thoughtful posting … and nicely illustrated ! Looking forward to reading your latest.

  5. I too picture Mr. Darcy as being fit and not needing to pad his clothes. My Darcys do help where needed as well. One author had her Darcy chopping wood much to Elizabeth’s delight. Mr. Hurst might like his food a little too well with too little exercise, but Darcy should be buff. I think you just about covered the type of exercise Darcy would indulge in. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  6. I grew up surrounded by cowboys. Both working and rodeo. Riding horses kept them trim and lean. I had a close male friend who wasn’t a “working cowboy”. He basically rode because he enjoyed it and then was part of a team roping pair. The rest of the time he worked in the men’s department at Wal-Mart. He also drank a great deal so I was always surprised at how lean he was when he would take off his shirt in the summer. Not that I was complaining about the scenery… 🙂

  7. Horseback riding. If you are doing it right, your entire body is engaged and communicating with the horse, from your legs, to your butt, core and upper body. I had a six-pack at one point when I was riding regularly and doing a sitting trot and cantering for just 20 minutes a day. I was tired and sweating after only a 45-minute ride. Riding on top of walking that much? If they actually did all that, no wonder the younger set wasn’t fat.

  8. Interesting post. I never really thought about this before but I can’t imagine them doing much more than what you mentioned since I always picture men of Darcy’s station as men of leisure.

  9. Georgina, thank you for this informative post. WOW! I didn’t realize how much walking one did in the Regency era.

  10. We do have information about one man in Pride and Prejudice who exercises regularly: Mr. Collins.

    “To work in this garden was one of his [Mr. Collins] most respectable pleasures.”

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