No, you haven’t stumbled across a health website, but it is January, just beyond the two-week mark of when a large percentage of the population has renewed their vow to take better care of themselves, so it seemed appropriate. Particularly for one such as I, whose pursuit of health has proven frustrating and elusive, particularly in recent years. I told my husband that I wanted to go back to wearing a health tracking device. My experience some years back with a BodyMedia armband taught me that having the data motivates me to do better, so for Christmas, he gave me a shiny, new Apple Watch. Meaning that technically, I had a head-start on my resolution start date. It’s a good thing, too, because as with any new device, it takes time to learn how to use it.
It didn’t take long to notice that the hourly reminder to stand up and move around for a minute helped my circulation and that regularly taking a 60-second breather where the point was simply to “breathe” helped me stay focused on the task at hand and improved my blood pressure readings. I had forgotten, after abandoning the armband I used to wear, how simply knowing how many steps I’d taken and how much energy I’d expended over the day inspired me to stay on track and push myself toward daily goals. As I have directed energy to these things, I already see the rewards, and I am rediscovering truths taught by Jane Austen over two centuries ago. It is a truth, widely if not universally acknowledged, that good health is far better than a good fortune. I try each day to close the Activity rings.
Anyone familiar with the state of healthcare during the Regency can’t be surprised that this was a culture where people went out of their way to preserve their health if they had it and reclaim it if they didn’t. Walking and horseback riding were so universally employed for exercise that they were fashion and social events when the weather permitted it.
Jane Austen frequently used this aspect of the culture to both shape her characters and twist the plot. It’s easy to pick out the hypochondriacs in her work, and fun to analyze them too, but today we’re going to discuss how Austen deftly used health, particularly exercise, in her work.
The first example that came to my mind would be Elizabeth Bennet, who would have undoubtedly been an athlete had she been born in a modern time. She runs and skips, climbs on rocks, and dances, but most notably, she walks. Her purpose is not to get exercise, she walks because being active is at the core of who she is. She is not particularly conscious of the health benefits of her walking, but it is one of the initial charms that we know captures Darcy’s eye:
“Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing…”
Austen does an excellent job of subtly reinforcing the attractiveness that stems from her activity when she first arrives at Netherfield when Jane has taken ill:
“She was shewn into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. 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. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother’s manners there was something better than politeness; there was good-humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former 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. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.”
We understand later, when he defends Elizabeth’s walk to Netherfield in this passage, we get a second confirmation that the glow of energetic health is part of Elizabeth’s appeal:
“I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley, in a half-whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.”
“Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.”
Elizabeth Bennet isn’t the only heroine Austen graced with health due to exercise. Consider Fanny Price, whose exercise is taken in the form of a daily horseback ride.
Austen skillfully uses her regularity in the activity to push Fanny aside, when, despite promises that he would return the horse to Fanny in time for her ride, Edmund allows Mary Crawford to selfishly exceed the time. He adds insult to injury by this manipulation:
When they parted at night Edmund asked Fanny whether she meant to ride the next day.
“No, I do not know—not if you want the mare,” was her answer.
“I do not want her at all for myself,” said he; “but whenever you are next inclined to stay at home, I think Miss Crawford would be glad to have her a longer time— for a whole morning, in short. She has a great desire to get as far as Mansfield Common: Mrs. Grant has been telling her of its fine views, and I have no doubt of her being perfectly equal to it. But any morning will do for this. She would be extremely sorry to interfere with you. It would be very wrong if she did. She rides only for pleasure; you for health.”
By this means, Mary Crawford gains the use of Fanny’s horse for the next several mornings, with Fanny reduced to walking for exercise. Ah, but then we see a twist when Fanny is sent away, and Austen tells us outright:
“Fanny was beginning to feel the effect of being debarred from her usual regular exercise; she had lost ground as to health since her being in Portsmouth…”
And here, among other endeavors he has undertaken to prove himself to Fanny is when Henry Crawford’s capacity to be a better person becomes personal to her, for he has observed Fanny’s need for both fresh air and activity and offers a solution:
“I am considering your sister’s health,” said he, addressing himself to Susan, “which I think the confinement of Portsmouth unfavourable to. She requires constant air and exercise. When you know her as well as I do, I am sure you will agree that she does, and that she ought never to be long banished from the free air and liberty of the country. If, therefore” (turning again to Fanny), “you find yourself growing unwell, and any difficulties arise about your returning to Mansfield, without waiting for the two months to be ended, that must not be regarded as of any consequence, if you feel yourself at all less strong or comfortable than usual, and will only let my sister know it, give her only the slightest hint, she and I will immediately come down, and take you back to Mansfield.”
Of course, his selflessness will not last, but one must admire Austen’s cleverness in using the importance of fresh air and exercise to Fanny’s health in making Edmund seem insensitive and Henry the opposite.
There are many other references in Austen novels to the importance of exercise. Have any of them made an impression on you? I left some of the best ones for you to share!