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?