A walk in Jane Austen’s shoes

A walk in Jane Austen’s shoes

My series on resort towns and my travels has thus far only tangentially touched on Jane Austen, but in today’s post I want to write about her, particularly her health. You might, as was generally the case for me, think of it as being poor. After all, as Kyra Kramer writes in her guest post here, she was plagued by a somewhat bizarre set of maladies, from ongoing conjunctivitis to having whooping cough as an adult, before dying at the age of 41.

Yet other things suggest she had at least periods of very good health. A fondness for dancing in her youth meant country dances and reels, which require a goodly degree of stamina: they winded even professional dancers when the BBC attempted to recreate the Netherfield Ball. And as I discovered when I attempted to walk where she’d walked, she was much nearer Elizabeth Bennet than Fanny Price, when it came to a ramble.

I keep a running Google Map of all of the places I want to visit in the UK, and at some point Bath had acquired a pin for Charlcombe, based on one of the evening walks Austen took during her time in Bath:

I spent Friday evening with the Mapletons, and was obliged to submit to being pleased in spite of my inclination. We took a very charming walk from six to eight up Beacon Hill, and across some fields, to the village of Charlecombe, which is sweetly situated in a little green valley, as a village with such a name ought to be. Marianne is sensible and intelligent; and even Jane, considering how fair she is, is not unpleasant. We had a Miss North and a Mr. Gould of our party; the latter walked home with me after tea. He is a very young man, just entered Oxford, wears spectacles, and has heard that “Evelina” was written by Dr Johnson.

This made it seem like a pleasant after-dinner stroll, so I thought it would be nice at some point to walk to Charlcombe myself, and during this trip fixed on doing it on a Sunday, my last day in Bath. While “up Beacon Hill” does not suggest the exact path taken by Austen, I’d already been hiking up a portion of that hill to indulge my interest in architecture at other points during my time in Bath, and opted for a path that was a little more around the long way, thinking the grade of the hill would be a little less steep.

Map of the city of Bath. Charlcombe is due north.

It didn’t really matter. Either way you have to go a very long way up the large hill that serves as the basis for Bath’s cascading terraces of houses. By this point in the trip temperatures were un-Englishly warm, going into the 80s, and although I had been routinely doing more than 10,000 steps a day and usually more than 15,000 during my trip, and should have been fit for it, I was an exhausted, sweaty mess by the time I reached the top.

Uphill road into Charlcombe. It’s one of those charming village roads where pedestrians and cars are completely expected to share.

This was no after-dinner stroll, and the aplomb with which Austen writes of it indicates that she must have been incredibly fit by modern standards. This makes sense, when you think about it: in her country life, walking would have been her primary means of getting about, for presumably even when Mr. Austen kept a carriage, the young ladies were not constantly ordering it to go about (like at Longbourn, the horses would have often been needed for the farm). And then in Bath, she must have grown used to walking those hilly streets: one cannot imagine the expense of a chair would have been one commonly borne by the Austens.

The walk, however, was rewarding, both for the spectacular view and for the charming little church there, which had another of those holy wells from the old days of belief that such water had a miraculous rather than secular curative nature.

Church of St. Mary in Charlcombe.
Interior of the church of St. Mary.
Holy well on St. Mary’s grounds.

Charlcombe’s claim to fame, of course, is that Jane Austen once walked there, which says something in and of itself:

Quote from Jane Austen’s letter, at Charlcombe.

As for me, I continued on up the hill to the Hare and Hounds pub, where I enjoyed an even better view and consumed the most-earned Sunday roast I’ve ever had in my life.

View from the pub.

I walked more directly down the hill, down Lansdown Road, judging the grade of the hill and what it must have been like to walk all the way up it. This was further evidence – as though I needed it – of Austen’s fitness.

Old turnpike sign on the Lansdown Road.

Evidence of our dear author’s fitness also appears in her pelisse, which was on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke as part of the commemoration of Austen’s death. Based on studies of the pelisse, it’s estimated that Austen was 5’7 to 5’8 tall. It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily make her any taller at that time among her peers than someone of that height today (I am 5’8 myself). It’s a common fallacy that people were naturally shorter at that time, perpetuated in part because of the height of the decks of naval ships, which were not low because people were short, but instead low due to the needed weight distribution of the heavy guns; tall decks would have put the center of gravity too high on a ship. There certainly were people who were shorter, due to malnutrition – there were people surviving on bread at this time. But among the middle and upper classes, being as tall as Austen would not have been out of the norm.

As I mentioned, I am 5’8 myself, so it was interesting to look at the pelisse through that lens, and Austen was decidedly thinner than myself. I’d go so far as to say she had a light and pleasing figure!

Pelisse thought to have been worn by Jane Austen.
Pelisse from the back.
Aside from Austen’s pelisse, the exhibit featured other fashions, themed around going to a ball.

I went a number of the Jane Austen 200 exhibits, and also made a return to the house museum in Chawton. This was perhaps not the best year to do so, for it was rather crowded. Still, that gave the place a life, particularly since they were letting folks play the pianoforte (I love it when that’s allowed in historic houses) and it’s amazing to think of just how many people are making this particular pilgrimage.

360 view of Jane and Cassandra’s bedroom.

The walk to the great house. Mrs. Austen and Cassandra are buried in the cemetery on the right.
The house’s Elizabethan exterior.
The great hall at Chawton House.
360 view of the dining room at Chawton House.

Chawton House gallery.

It’s very interesting to walk through these rooms in the house Austen visited frequently during her life in the Chawton cottage. If the cottage was the place where she had her most productive output, was the great house the source of much inspiration, both in its spaces and in the rooms themselves? What heroines might she have envisioned peering out of those mullioned windows? What drama might she have imagined within these rooms?

This, we’ll never know, and alas, I must draw this post to an end with the melancholy promise that my next post will bring us to the inevitable end, for Miss Austen. So I shall see you all next time, when we go to Winchester.

20 Responses to A walk in Jane Austen’s shoes

  1. Thank you for this trip to another world. I can’t travel there myself so I am grateful for the photos and the experience. Wow! I loved it.

  2. I enjoyed your post. I had a similar experience walking around Box Hill. I longed to borrow the donkey Mrs. Elton had her eye on for the Donwell Abbey excursion.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your experience of this trip with us, Sophie! The post was fascinating from beginning to end and I loved the photos. What an illuminating look at where Jane went and her level of exercise, and what a great thing to be able to walk in her shoes!

  4. How fascinating, Sophie. I’ve often wondered about Jane Austen’s fitness level. She seems to refer to walking a lot in Persuasion, which she wrote when she was ill, but it’s hard to judge distances from the books. Anne seemed to tire easily, but maybe she was walking huge distances.

    • I hadn’t really wondered about it myself until I did this and then it astonished me when I attempted this walk. I do wonder if Austen put some of her own exhaustion from her illness into Anne’s character, now that you mention it. Although they probably were walking pretty long distances, too. Thank you for your comment, Rebecca!

  5. This made me laugh: “It’s one of those charming village roads where pedestrians and cars are completely expected to share.”

    In Jane Austen’s bedroom, is that an actual closet instead of a wardrobe? Or just a door into another room? Would she have had a bathroom, or would there be a sort of communal one? Or did they curtain off a section and bath in the kitchen?

    This makes me think we need more wallpaper and wood paneling in our stories, and how big is that rug in the Chawton House dining room? It looks ginormous!

    Great pictures and videos, Sophie. It’s so exciting to see them!

    Also, I never thought about if Jane Austen was not noticeably tall. I assumed she was tall for her time, as I’m always told people weren’t as tall then. However, I never thought to qualify that tallness by social class. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how extreme economic disparity was back then.

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

    • Hahaha, I just love those roads in England. They’re so much more staunch about pedestrian rights there.

      In Jane Austen’s house, I’m not sure what was behind the closed door, although that little closet has shelves, which makes me laugh a little. Presumably they weren’t installed by Lady Catherine. I think a house of this size would still have used an outside earth closet (aka outdoor loo) for bodily functions. As for bathing I think they would have just brought a portable tub into one of the rooms. I’ve got pictures of these types of things…maybe after this series wraps up I’ll do a bathrooms post!

      Wallpaper got popular in the late 18th century…before that it was painted wood paneling and then before that paneling like you can see in the Jacobean/Elizabethan Chawton House rooms. English architecture and interior decoration is one of my side hobbies! 🙂 And yes, depending on what a house has it says something about the age of the house and the taste of its owner…so it can be a real aid in stories. For example I think it likely that both Donwell Abbey and Longbourn had the old style wood paneling, but while Mr. Knightley probably kept the paneling because he liked tradition and would rather put the money towards farming improvements, Mrs. Bennet probably hated it and wanted to get rid of it, but couldn’t afford to do so. One of these days I want to do a really careful read of all of the books and try to match up the locations to architectural eras. And yeah, I’ve seen some ginormous rugs in these houses! All of the floors were hardwood as those were the supports, but finished hardwood wasn’t really a thing back then so they installed some super-huge carpets!

      Thank you for your comment, Summer!

  6. Thanks for continuing to share information about your trip. I love to think that Elizabeth’s love to ramble was inspired by Jane’s own experience and that this certainly kept her fit.

    • Thank you for your comment, darcybennet! I was definitely thinking after this walk that Elizabeth may have had more of her author in her than Jane’s other creations, including her sharp wit and love to ramble.

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