I’m pretty dedicated to my morning walks – about 2 1/2 miles with significant elevation gain, over the roads and trails of our rural neighborhood. It’s something I started on my own years ago, after I quit my “day job,” and which I now continue with my husband since he retired. We go rain or shine, or even in 8-10″ of snow like this morning! I draw the line at high winds, though, since we’re surrounded by large trees that have a way of blowing over from time to time.
It’s my main form of exercise – good for body and mind alike. Writing is a very sedentary occupation. But I inevitably find that getting the blood moving enables the words to flow more freely too, and a brisk turn out of doors is the best cure for writer’s block I’ve yet discovered. So, 5-6 days a week, we put on our hiking boots and set out from home on one of a variety or routes.
“I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing when one has a motive; only three miles. I shall be back by dinner.” (Pride and Prejudice, chapter 7)
I think Jane Austen would approve. In her stories, she uses a person’s activity level as one subtle clue to his/her character. Her favorites, like Elizabeth Bennet, tend to be, if not truly athletic, at least lively and energetic, with a fondness for walking and dancing. Meanwhile, those less favored often demonstrate more indolent habits (think Mr. Hurst, Lady Bertram, and even Mr. Bennet). The fact that Austen expected her heroines, as well as her heroes, to be physically active, puts her ahead of her time since fine ladies of her day were not generally encouraged to much exert themselves. As you remember, Elizabeth’s walk to Netherfield surprises her family and positively shocks Mr. Bingley’s sisters:
That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. …Mr. Darcy was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone.
I’ve carried on Jane Austen’s custom in this as well as many other things – sending my heroes and heroines on long walks as often as possible, not only for their benefit (often giving them a better chance for private conversation with each other) but also for mine! There’s nothing more tedious (for the reader or writer) than having nothing for your characters to do except sit around a drawing room day after day.
In Return to Longbourn, for example, I sent Mary Bennet on an important walk with the new heir, Tristan Collins, which ended with their dashing back to the house together, thoroughly drenched by the rain. Come to think of it, Mary got drenched again later in the book, this time on a ride instead of a walk, and with a different man altogether! (Hmm. Must be that whole wet-shirt fascination thing.)
And it’s the same for my other novels. I’m sure you will find significant long walks in most if not all of them. But there’s one walk that stands out in my mind at the moment, and so I thought I’d share it with you today. This scene is from The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen and represents what happened in Austen’s own life that inspired what she wrote in Persuasion – specifically the proposal Jane received from one Captain Philippe Devereaux (whose fictional counterparts are Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth):
Then Philippe rode over that fateful morning from his temporary lodgings to propose one more walk to Ashe before the breakup of the party.
“An excellent notion,” said Henry, in response to the Captain’s suggestion. “Do not you agree, my dear Eliza? It will serve as our take-leave visit.”
“Yes, to be sure, although it pains me to think that we must go away tomorrow. Jane, you will walk with us.”
Looking up from the book I pretended to read, I saw her wink at me. “Certainly, if you wish it,” said I, as if it were all one to me.
“I would not lose your company for one hour,” continued Eliza, “even to gain that of the Lefroys.”
With no one else available to join in, we four set off for Ashe parsonage, walking at a brisk rate to match the bracing chill in the air. Once out of sight of the house, the Captain and I slackened our pace, steadily dropping behind the others, as we had so often done before. Words were not necessary to orchestrate this alteration, or the fact that our parallel paths soon drifted a little closer, to the point where the sleeve of his coat might happen to brush mine occasionally. I could then at least imagine I felt his warmth bridging the gap between us, though we never touched.
“I believe I owe you an apology, Miss Austen,” he began at length as we went along.
I looked sideways up at him. “Truly? Whatever for? And please, do call me by my Christian name whenever we are alone.” I longed to hear myself addressed so. And, coming from his lips, I expected that one syllable would sound as sweet as the most elegant sonnet.
He paused and looked at me. “Very well, Jane.”
A wave of pleasure washed over me at his caressing tone, and time seemed suspended for a moment while the exquisite sound hung in the air.
Then he remembered himself, resumed our walk, and continued with his thought. “I owe you an apology, or at least an explanation, for my behaviour to you in London. You must have wondered why I ended our conversation so abruptly, especially when we had been doing so well together.”
“You did give me an explanation,” said I, determined now to make light of the circumstance that had hitherto given me so much anxiety. “You said you feared detaining me from my friends overly long. Still, I thought I must have said or done something to displease you.”
“Not at all. Quite the opposite, I assure you. Perhaps you did not suspect it, but I knew within minutes of our first meeting that I could care for you, that an attachment was indeed already beginning, on my side at least. The longer we were together, the more difficult it would be to break away. And, not being in a strong position to make any commitments, I believed I owed it to us both to part before any real harm was done.”
“Yet you followed me to Hampshire anyway.” I stopped and turned to my companion, and he did likewise.
“Yes,” he said almost breathlessly. “I suppose I changed my mind.”
Perhaps it would have been more correct to demure, but I simply said, “I am so glad you did, Philippe.”
This seemed to decide him. Rewarding me with a gratified smile, he took both my gloved hands in his and hurried on. “The world would tell us that it is imprudent to contemplate marrying on so little. I have some money saved, otherwise there will be barely anything above my pay to live on. But I love you too passionately for delay, Jane, and I am asking you to believe in me. I am resourceful, hard working, determined, and, despite my history, I count myself a lucky sort of person. With you by my side, I cannot fail of achieving great things, both in my career and as regards to fortune. There is plenty of prize money to be made in the war, and I still hope to recover at least a portion of my family’s property as well. Dearest Jane…” Here he dropped to one knee. “…will you trust me? I may have no right to ask, but will you marry me now, while I am undeserving? If you agree, you will never regret it, I promise.”
Dear God! How long ago that scene played out! And still, I have yet to forget one detail of it – the stray lock of dark hair forming a flawless curl on the captain’s forehead; the small puffs of fog created when his warm breath merged with the frigid air as he spoke; the call of a distant rook punctuating the brief silence after he finished. These and other precious remembrances compose a sharply drawn picture in my mind, undiminished and unmarred by the passage of time. The words spoken on that wooded pathway remain so perfectly preserved that I have no difficulty recalling them even now, more than seventeen years later, recalling them and ascribing the substance of my captain’s sentiments over to his fictional counterpart. I take my pen and write:
Captain Wentworth had no fortune… But he was confident that he should soon be rich; full of life and ardour, he knew that he should soon have a ship, and soon be on a station that would lead to every thing he wanted. He had always been lucky; he knew he should be so still. Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it, must have been enough for Anne.
Likewise, it had been enough for me as well. I agreed to marry Captain Devereaux that day, and it would be impossible to say which of us was the happiest – I, in receiving his declaration of love, or he in having his proposal accepted. We laughed and kissed by turns, forgetting to make much progress towards our destination. I smiled so much that by the time we finally did reach Ashe, my cheeks ached for it. If only that initial happiness, that boundless, unlimited joy, had been stout enough to withstand the storm to come.
Well, what did you think? Was this a walk worth taking, even beyond the beneficial exercise? It’s hard to imagine one that had a more significant bearing on those involved. And the proposal just wouldn’t have been the same if it had taken place in a drawing room! Don’t you agree?