As I pack my bags and boxes and consider the enormity of walking from Kanyakumari to Mumbai, my inner Miss Bingley casts a cold eye over my inner Elizabeth Bennet. The most wonderful backhanded compliment from Pride and Prejudice has stayed with me since reading it a couple of months ago:
She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker.
Will that me my epitaph too? Is that how people will characterise me? I think I’d quite like that.
Now that my trip is a mere matter of weeks away, I feel like I can talk about it more. Until now, it’s been quite abstract and dreamlike: a hope and a prayer rather than a reality. Ian and I are packing up our Portland life and leaving for India in September. It will happen. We are going to walk from the most southern tip of the country to its unfathomable, mammoth city, the old Bombay.
I forced myself to write: “We are going to.” My instinct was to say: “We’re going to try to…” Which is the truth but there’s no room for truth anymore; there can be nothing but belief.
Like Lizzy Bennet, I am going to be a most excellent walker.
I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: a History of Walking and she dedicates quite a few pages to Jane Austen and to Pride and Prejudice in particular.
Walking was a particularly feminine pastime in eighteenth and nineteenth century England – the “country lady’s amusement” as Dorothy Wordworth wrote in a 1792 letter.
Walking provided a shared seclusion for crucial conversations. Etiquette at the time required residents and guests of the country house to pass their day in the main rooms together and the garden walk provided relief from the group, either in solitude or in tête-a-têtes.
It is both socially and spatially the widest latitude available to the women contained within these social strictures, the activity in which they find a chance to exert body and imagination.
Elizabeth Bennet transgresses the boundaries of this somewhat genteel amusement. She literally and metaphorically strays from the path when she leaves the safety of manicured lawns, muddies her petticoats and sets out on a three mile walk:
To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.
To which Mr. Darcy replies Nonsense! and is obviously impressed by Elizabeth’s wandering vivaciousness. “You are conscious,” he says to her, “that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking.” Says Solnit:
The acuity of idle people about each other’s conduct extended to critiques of movement and posture, and a person’s walk was considered an important part of his or her appearance… Walking can be for display, withdrawal, or both.
It’s the freedom of walking I’m anticipating most. I love that walking was not only a sanctuary and an act of independence for women but could be one of profound rebellion. For those of you who haven’t read the novel, I will leave you in suspense as to how seductive Lizzy’s legs were to Mr. Darcy. I myself am not at all bothered about the attractiveness of my gait on our walk. I’m just hoping I’m strong enough to do it! As Austen and Solnit show, there’s a little more to walking than one foot in front of the other. Though that’s probably a good place to begin.