In Jane Austen’s day, during the prim and proper Regency era, did young ladies ever indulge in a swim?
Fiona, my heroine in LADY FIASCO, a Traditional Regency Romance, liked to swim. (Not in the nude, mind you. She wore the customary conservative dark blue bathing dress that covered her quite thoroughly.)
But is it plausible that a young lady in the Regency era would even know how to swim?
Some say yes, others say no. Let’s have some fun and investigate this controversy.
(I apologize for the nudity in this engraving. This is a caricature done in 1790 by the popular caricaturist of the era, Thomas Rowlandson, depicting the reason why the British government needed to designate separate beaches for men and women.)
What evidence exists?
Naysayers reluctantly admit that a few gentlemen might have known how to swim, but they insist that women did not indulge in the sport beyond taking a dip at Brighton. Others will say that there are always exceptions to a rule. Conjecture on either side must be ruled out as unreliable.
Trolling for Proof
For reliable proof we can turn to: diaries, journals, books written during the time period, etchings, paintings, and drawings.
Let’s start with sea bathing. We have irrefutable proof, scores of writings and paintings documenting that “sea bathing” came into vogue during the Georgian era. Even baby King George the III was brought to the sea where the famous “dipper”Martha Gunn took him for his first dip in the sea.
As seen in the first illustration, sea-bathing was so prevalent that Georgian law required men and women to have separate beaches. This is because people often stripped to their birthday suits to take the plunge.
For more about this, check out this scholarly and informative article: Sea Bathing in Georgian Brighton
But can we really say sea bathing is the same as swimming?
Yes and no.
For waders, dippers, and those just wanting a good salty wash, the answer is no. For those daring souls, who ventured out deeper into the ocean, those who plunged under the waves, the exercise would require a certain amount of prowess in the water. Anyone who has been in more than four or five feet of surf knows that. Yes, they would need to know how to swim or learn real quick.
In this 1790 hand-colored etching of a woman swimming by Thomas Rowlandson [below] we can see that the artist understood at least the rudimentary skills of swimming. She is prone rather than dog paddling, She is using an extended scooping stroke that looks suspiciously like an over hand crawl.
(Again I apologize for the graphic nature of these engravings, but there are precious few works of art pertaining to our subject.)
Swimming from a country perspective.
[below] is a lovely little watercolour done by young Diana Sperling, Bathing at Dynes Hall (c. 1812 or 1813). Diana recorded country life from the gentry’s point of view. Her guileless paintings captured the rustic carefree essence of country life. Here we see her young cousins frolicking in the lake in their dark blue water-dresses. Clearly the pond is not deep, but one cousin appears comfortable laying back and floating which, at the very least, indicates a familiarity with water.
The Rise and Fall of a Regency Dandy is a collection of letters, bills, and journal entries, unearthed from a bank vault in London, detailing the life and times of Scrope Berdmore Davies, a Cambridge school chum of Lord Byron. Scrope’s correspondence refers to a number of swimming outings.
According to letters and bills, the young men at Cambridge often hired ‘watermen’ or what we would now call lifeguards. Watermen were accounted to be excellent swimmers, paid to watch over the men swimming in the rivers or canals.
Sadly, one of Byron’s close friends, Charles Skinner Matthews, drowned while swimming. He got tangled in weeds. Scrope laments in a letter to Byron that had either one of them been present Matthews would not have drowned.
If gentlemen knew how to one would think at least a few of them would educate their sisters and daughters, for safety sake. Ah, but here I go a conjecturing.
The next engraving, dated a little later, 1829, is Mermaids at Brighton by William Heath. It depicts women sea-bathing with bathing machines at Brighton. Note the various abilities in the water depicted by the artist. The rude tags are mine, of course.
What can we conclude from all this?
It is abundantly clear the people enjoyed the water. From Byron and Scrope’s letter we must conclude that many gentlemen knew how to swim. It is also obvious from engravings and paintings that at least some females knew how to swim, too. They were unusual, of course. But then, I always write about unusual women.