Gentlemen Anglers in Jane Austen

Gentlemen Anglers in Jane Austen

Lakes and rivers are plentiful in Kentucky (thanks to the plentiful rain), and I am fairly sure the moving van wasn’t out of sight before my husband announced his desire to buy a boat for fishing. I suspect I rolled my eyes, as I did the subsequent million times he brought up the topic. Unlike me, he grew up fishing. My only vivid memory of fishing as a youth involved severely choking on a trout bone, which led to a decades-long aversion to anything with scales and bulgy eyes unless in an aquarium tank!

Finally, the draw of tranquil lakes, lush Kentucky greenery, and diverse wildlife overcame my reluctance. We bought our boat last August, and after a stumbling start I have discovered a new passion within me: FISHING!

towing Lund
Towing our Lund fishing boat.
Taylorsville Lake in Kentucky, October 2014.
Sharon crappie
Hubby holding MY biggest catch, a 14″ crappie.
fish fry
Mega fish fry of crappie and bass. Yummy!

boy fishingYes, I am “hooked” by the sport of fishing. There’s a remaining tendency to roll my eyes at the plethora of angling experts with their endless tips on how to entice fish — as if the creatures are as smart as Einstein — and the fishing-dedicated rows upon rows at Cabela’s will forever boggle my mind. Nevertheless, having experienced the results, I can greater appreciate some of the science behind catching fish.

There are times, however — such as when listening to a 30-minute video on the multiple line knotting methods — that my mind wanders to a simpler era when fishing was snapping a tree limb and tying a string with a worm-baited hook to one end……  Ah…..

As appealing as the vision, I wondered how accurate it was. Obviously people have fished forever, mainly as a commercial gathering for food. My ever-curious mind questioned the history of fishing as a sport and leisure activity (more on that tomorrow on my blog), and then my musings drifted to Jane Austen. Doesn’t that happen to everyone? LOL!

Austen rarely mentions fishing in her novels, but this lends credibility to when she does. Today I decided to delve into the memorable fishing-related passages in Pride and Prejudice.

Mr. Gardiner, though seldom able to indulge the taste, was very fond of fishing, and was so much engaged in watching the occasional appearance of some trout in the water… that he advanced but little. … The conversation soon turned upon fishing, and she heard Mr. Darcy invite him, with the greatest civility, to fish there as often as he chose while he continued in the neighbourhood, offering at the same time to supply him with fishing tackle, and pointing out those parts of the stream where there was usually most sport.  ~Chapter 42

Lizzy’s surprise, and pleasure, at Mr. Darcy’s invitation to her uncle is rightly interpreted as noteworthy in regards to Darcy’s civility in offering Mr. Gardiner open entry onto his lands, and to take fish from his stock. This interpretation is later again proven accurate by Mr. Gardiner’s statement to Lizzy when back at the inn, “But perhaps he may be a little whimsical in his civilities…  therefore I shall not take him at his word about fishing, as he might change his mind another day, and warn me off his grounds.”

While it may seem that Mr. Gardiner’s comment is implying arrogance, fickleness, or superiority on Darcy’s part, in actuality Mr. Gardiner is expressing a logic that anyone slightly familiar with an angler’s attitude would also understand.

You see, a serious fisherman — and I submit that Austen is claiming this about Mr. Darcy — is highly secretive, especially regarding one’s own property and prime fishing spots. Austen’s careful selection of words makes it clear that Mr. Darcy had ready access to “fishing tackle” and knew precisely where the best fish were located. This is hugely significant. It not only reveals Darcy’s skill in the sport, which can only come after years of doing it, but most importantly that he is willing to share his knowledge with a man he does not know. Why? More on that in a bit.

At first glance Lizzy’s reaction to Mr. Darcy’s fishing offer may be wrongly interpreted as surprise that he deigns to engage in an activity presumably “common” or too rustic for a man of his stature. Not at all. In truth, fishing was one of the few entertainments, and perhaps the only hunting-type sport, that transcended class.

Darcy recognized Mr. Gardiner as a kindred spirit, I believe. Naturally he was seeking ways to ingratiate himself to Elizabeth, so might well have leapt at any chance to do so!  And indeed Lizzy was astonished by his pleasant interaction with her relatives overall.

Yet again, there is a deeper meaning and purpose to this incident. The key is that his invitation to fish was for a reason, Austen not choosing that recreation willy-nilly.

As Stephen Deuchar notes in Sporting Art in Eighteenth Century England: A Social and Political History, fishing was viewed as “a quiet game of patience, calmly pursued beside still brooks by those of a particularly sensitive and scholarly bent.” We know that Mr. Darcy hunted, as most gentlemen did, yet he is the only Austen hero who is specifically noted as a fisherman.

Can you begin to imagine how this revelation would affect Elizabeth?

Just prior to this juncture in the novel Lizzy has expressed her awe of the natural beauty of Pemberley’s grounds, Austen elaborate in her descriptions as seen through our heroine’s eyes, and the reader is well aware by this time of her delight in the outdoors and solitude. Next she listened to Mrs. Reynolds praise her master’s fine qualities at some length, unveiling a humble, warm, solicitous side of him hitherto unseen by Lizzy. Then, of all the places she could have accidentally encountered Mr. Darcy, it is while walking across the extensive lawn near the river; a reminder of their mutual attraction to the outdoors.

What a startling addition it must have been to envision him fishing! Nor do I think it a stretch to assume that as a country girl herself, Lizzy would comprehend the nuances in his invitation to Mr. Gardiner. Getting back to my “Why?” question above, remember the sentences immediately following the fishing invitation passage quoted earlier–

Mrs. Gardiner, who was walking arm in arm with Elizabeth, gave her a look expressive of her wonder. Elizabeth said nothing, but it gratified her exceedingly; the compliment must be all for herself. Her astonishment, however, was extreme; and continually was she repeating, “Why is he so altered? From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work such a change as this. It is impossible that he should still love me.” ~Chapter 42 (emphasis Jane Austen’s)

Mrs. Gardiner is clearly struck by the implications. Lizzy, while “extremely astonished”, knew the reason as well. Her internal questions are rhetorical, even if she isn’t quite ready at this stage to believe the answers. Darcy is an intelligent man, and he knows of Lizzy’s affinity for nature. What better way to send a message of his continued regard then to invite her uncle to fish? I bet he was silently thanking the heavens (or Miss Austen) for presenting the opportunity!

What do YOU think? Am I obsessed with fish these days, and thus reading too much into the text? Or do you agree, and also imagine, as I do, that Darcy cleverly managed to pick Mr. Gardiner’s brain about the woman he loved while the two sat in serene companionship by the placid water? Oh yeah! Darcy may have been caught unawares by Lizzy’s appearance, but once he “recollected himself” his mission to extend their time together was grabbed tightly. Good job, Darcy!

1821 men fishing copy

26 Responses to Gentlemen Anglers in Jane Austen

  1. A well reasoned post and I think it is both on-point and accurate for the era and the characters. I will be demonstrating and lecturing about both fly and coarse period fishing techniques at the forthcoming Jane Austen Festival next month in Louisville, and Intend to incorporate this vignette in my comments. Many thanks.

    • Thank you so much, Paul! What an honor to have you comment on my post! I happen to live in the Louisville area, not sure if you knew that, and am a member of the Greater Louisville JASNA. As a fisherwoman, and an Austen fanatic, I am looking forward to your presentation with high enthusiasm! I hope we can meet in person and chat. 🙂

      • It would be grand to visit. I will be making presentations on both Saturday and Sunday, and understand that I will be somewhere in the immediate area of the ‘Shoppes of Meryton.’ Of course, I have no clue where that may be located. Suspect that I will be giving a wide range of presentations, depending on areas of interest to those who stop by for my demonstrations…….typically discuss angling from ancient times forward, show some ancient fish hooks, including some found on the foreshore of the Thames River that date from about 100 B.C. to about 1790 which give a good idea of the development of hooks. some earlier winches (reels) with some that date to the Jane Austen era, rods, and Etc. You come by and we can talk about any aspect of period fishing that may interest you…..I am pleased that the ladies of Ms. Austen’s era often were dedicated fishers and many were quite talented… under appreciated aspect of angling even today. If you have the time look up my website: . Regards, Paul

  2. There are no fishermen in our family. My husband has cousins who both fish and hunt. Now…ask about golf.

  3. I love the idea that both Darcy and Mr. Gardiner were fishing for more than fish! heh heh I’ve fished all my life though my hubby and son are the real fishermen in our family. My Husband was a commercial fisherman for a lot of years as a hobby. He fishes whenever he gets the chance now that he is retired. So glad that you are having fun fishing now that you are retired.

  4. It’s funny I never imagine Darcy fishing but I guess when he wanted to get away from Lady Catherine or his many responsibilities he would go fishing!! My husband loves to fish. Not me! LOL but he says it is so peaceful to be on the water fishing and seeing dolphins and the birds! He loves everything about the fishing even though it is hard work he enjoys every moment of it. Sharon I am so happy you like it and enjoy it and with your husband! That is wonderful. You know I see you doing a chapter with Darcy showing his son how to fish. Yes Yes I see that! My husband showed my son how to fish when he was 6 and they still go fishing together whenever possible.

  5. I would expect a gentleman like Mr. Darcy to have learned to fish–he probably got a taste for it as a kid fishing in the ponds around the estate…at the time of the novel, I don’t know how much time he would have had to fish considering he had a giant estate to run, but he probably still went fishing occasionally. Even though he seems knowledgeable, he doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as Gardiner–I definitely agree he was more “fishing for information” or overly trying to seem agreeable to Elizabeth…

    A note on your theory–the “quiet patience” and “still brooks” is probably accurate because, dating as far back as the magna carta, certain methods of fishing were outlawed in the rivers because they hindered water traffic. Thus you probably didn’t have the fast-paced river fishing that has developed in America. A “still brook” wouldn’t have had much of any boat traffic, and therefore, became the fisher’s haven.

  6. What a fun post! I also fished as a child, with my dad and granddad. I will never forget the first time I went fishing with my granddad. He took a whole slew of his grandkids up to the lake and proceeded to illegally chum the lake with canned corn. Then he took each of us aside in turns and taught us (or attempted to teach us) to cast, (our hooks well baited with corn.) When we had spent a few minutes with him, we were sent off to play with the other cousins some distance from shore. Later, we all went down to the local newspaper office in Cortez, Colorado and all of us grandkids had our picture taken holding up the long string of fish that had been caught on that expedition. There were nearly twice as many fish as there were children. It took me many years to realize that granddad and my uncles had caught all the fish after our “lessons” were done and got around paying for licenses by attributing the catches to the kids, who were allowed to catch up to two fish apiece without a license. I’m sure the whole town had a good laugh – they all knew how granddad was. Alas, my husband does not like to fish, so I haven’t done much of it as an adult since I don’t think I’d like it much alone.

    When I first became acquainted with the P&P scene you’ve referenced, I recognized a certain symbolism to the fishing. By inviting Mr. Gardiner to his grounds to fish, Mr. Darcy was “baiting the hook” so to speak – hoping to “reel her in.” or at least bring Elizabeth back to Pemberley.

  7. Thanks for this delightful post, Sharon. Yes, it paints a heartwarming picture, to imagine Mr Darcy and Mr Gardiner bonding over a shared enjoyment of a favourite pastime, in the peace and quiet of Pemberley grounds 🙂

  8. I never thought about all those implications of going “fishing.” My son belongs to a bass fishing club here in the east. Before a tournament, they go to practice. That turns out to be a code word for ” finding the best places before the event!” Happy fishing and reading.

    • Tournament fishing is something I can’t imagine. Too much for me. Although, I have caught one bass, about 12 inches, and he felt so different on my line. I can see why fishermen focus on the challenge of catching them.

  9. Both my husband and i fished a bit when we were kids. When our kids were little, their grandparents used to take them fishing. Hopefully when they have kids, they will do the same!

  10. My daddy and I used to go fishing. We weren’t very good at it, and I don’t think I can remember us ever making a full meal out of our catch, but we enjoyed the peace away from the rest of the family. One of my fondest memories is he and I spending the night on a pontoon under a railroad bridge on one of the state lakes because it was supposed to be THE place for catching Striper. Of course, we didn’t catch much but we had a grand time, he and I. I’ve fished now and then since, but nothing like when I fished with my dad. I can only imagine the things Darcy was striving to learn whilst fishing with Mr. Gardiner. One might even wonder if Mr. Gardiner was “fishing” as well trying to find out Darcy’s thoughts and motives. 😉

    • Ah, good point on Mr. Gardiner fishing info from Darcy. I hadn’t considered that. I guess I imagined him utterly focused on actual fishing to the point of being oblivious to anything else. But, there is no indication in the text that he isn’t an intelligent, astute man, so it is logical to conclude he would be aware of the interest between Darcy and Lizzy.

      I LOVE your fishing story! How amazing to have such a lovely memory with your dad! Thanks for sharing, Stephanie 🙂

  11. Hello Sharon! I enjoyed reading your fish story. My Daddy loved fly fishing. Fishing is a great way to enjoy nature and the quiet.

    • Fly fishing is a beautiful art. I’ve only read about it, and seen it in movies like A River Runs Through It. Not sure I have the patience or finesse to learn that skill, but it sure is fascinating to watch. A great memory for you about your dad. Thanks for sharing, Caryl.

  12. Fun post! My dad loved to fish. In fact in my Grandma’s house he and his brothers, who were plumbers, happened to have a whole set up in the basement where they raised their own minnows. We lived in Milwaukee Wis. at the time and the brothers would go fishing at their Uncle’s cabin on the Wolf River, further north. When we were kids, my dad would take us fishing on Sunday afternoons, but just for fun. None of us were as serious as he was. Thanks, Jen

    • Raising minnows, wow. That is one way to do it! We have bought minnows a couple times (and worms too), and caught a few fish that way. But it is a hassle, so I think we shall stick to fake lures for the most part. Now and again it is fun to mix it up, though.

      Living where there are lots of choices in waterways makes all the difference. I grew up in the mountains, but we had small creeks and ponds, so it wasn’t the best for fishing. My husband talked about buying a boat for years, to be honest. But in CA, in the Valley where we lived, lakes were a distance away. And drying up fast with the drought. Spending money on a boat was illogical. Kentucky is very different. Water everywhere, as I imagine there is in Wisconsin.

      Thanks for sharing your story, Jen. 🙂

  13. I totally agree with your supposition that Darcy wanted to find out more about Elizabeth from Mr Gardiner and also gain her approval. As a child I used to spend holidays at my Grans in a village in North Yorkshire where we ate fresh trout caught by my uncles. We used to stand in the river for hours catching little bullheads in our hands. I went fishing with my ex husband in the seventies although I usually sat and read a book but I did try it and caught a few fish though not as impressive looking as the one you caught! but I panicked when I caught an eel and it started climbing the line and that was the end of that!

    • I suppose it could be said that while Mr. Gardiner was fishing for fish, Mr. Darcy was fishing for information. Ha!! It does make sense to me, though. After all, several months had passed so for all Darcy knew Elizabeth could be engaged to another. Yikes!

      Oh my on the eel. That would be scary indeed! I always bring a book, magazine, or my iPad with Kindle. Just in case. On some of our previous outings, with us both learning about the lake, I got frustrated and bored. Reading material came in handy for sure.

  14. I agree that Darcy must’ve used the time to converse with and pick Mr Gardiner’s brain about Lizzie. A perfect way to do so. I used to fish at my grandparents and had my secret spot. I usually came home with dinner. My son likes to fish and makes his own flies.

    • I doubt I’ll ever have the patience to make my own lures. Store bought ones are fine by me. Although, I did spend a couple hours the other day getting a bunch of lures “prepped” so they can be tied on quickly. Taylorsville lake is great for fish, but has tons of dead logs and other debris that snag the lures. As I told my hubby, every second I spend stringing a new lure is time my hook isn’t in the water!

    • Thanks Charlene. I admit to being surprised how much I enjoy fishing, and eating the fish! Over the years I have developed a taste for salmon and tilapia, but that is as far as my fish craving has gone. Until now!

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