Jane Austen & The Art of Walking
(One of the most interesting motifs in Austen’s works is “the walk” or “the journey.” Jane Austen was herself very fond of walking, and she also enjoyed creating heroines who would find numerous occasions to take a stroll, either by themselves or in company.
As Dorothy Wordsworth noted in a letter dated 1792, walking was “both socially and spatially the widest latitude available to women contained within these social strictures, the activity in which they find a chance to exert body and imagination.”
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that some of the most important moments in Jane Austen’s novels do take place during, or are in a way inspired by, a walk. What is different about Austen’s heroines, however, is their willingness to flout social decorum in terms of when, how, how far, and with whom to walk. This is particularly true in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.
Pride and Prejudice:
The following is an extract from Pride and Prejudice. In the scene, Miss Bingley comments on the fact that Elizabeth Bennet has walked all the way from her house at Longbourn to Netherfield, and in bad weather nonetheless:
“’She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.’
‘She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!’
‘Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office.”
‘Your picture may be very exact, Louisa, said Bingley; ‘but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice.’
‘You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure,’ said Miss Bingley; ‘and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition.’
‘To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.’
‘It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,’ said Bingley.
‘I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,’ observed Miss Bingley, in a half-whisper, ‘that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.’
‘Not at all,’ he replied; ‘they were brightened by the exercise.’” (Austen 26)
This streak of independence in Elizabeth, and its demonstration of her care for her sister, is what will stoke the initial spark in Darcy’s eyes. Later in the book, important walks will take place again. In Chapter 56, for instance, Lady Catherine visits the Bennet family and shares surprising and crucial information with Elizabeth during their stroll together.
Later, Mr. Darcy comes to visit and the entire cast takes a walk, but Elizabeth and Darcy separate from the group. This gives them the opportunity to advance their relationship, after Elizabeth expresses her gratitude for Darcy’s help in the embarrassing and unfortunate “Lydia situation.” In the next chapter, the two will promenade once more, after which Darcy decides the time is right to seek Mr. Bennet’s consent to wed Elizabeth.
Thus, the walks are crucial to the story. Not only do they set Elizabeth apart from other women of the time, within and external to the story, by demonstrating her independence and progressive nature vis-à-vis her willingness to walk “inappropriately,” but the walking spaces also provide opportunities to advance the plot.
The only other narrative device to rank as highly in importance is, perhaps, the epistolary moments that allow for characters’ true feelings to be explained in straightforward fashion (something Darcy, especially, is apparently incapable of doing in person!). It is the walk, however, which in this novel (and others, such as Persuasion), allows for and gives rise to character growth and development.
Ultimately, walking in Austen’s narrative spaces accomplishes three important things: It creates the opportunity for important conversation; it allows a heroine to observe and reflect on her situation, possibilities, and future; and it lets the characters respond to the world around them. Whether it is Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy or Anne and Captain Wentworth, the walk is, above all, a chance to clear the air between courting characters and to progress the romantic elements of the plot.