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.
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.
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.
Charlcombe’s claim to fame, of course, is that Jane Austen once walked there, which says something in and of itself:
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.
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.
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!
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. 360 view of the dining room at Chawton House.
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.