“The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Henry David Thoreau was a great walker. His walking was directly linked to his ability to think. Directly linked to his philosophy. If Thoreau did not walk, Thoreau could not write.
Thinking about this made me realize why I have been unable to finish up this post from my series that has been given the quizzical name ‘Perambulations.’ A post that was beginning to drag on as long as Ben Jonson’s epic walk to Edinburgh in 1618.
I have not been walking. The ground has been as frozen and inhospitable as a Bronte moor, and the wind has been bitter cold. There are, in this house, enough knitted and crocheted hats and scarves to clothe an army, but I am a fair weather walker.
“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.”
Yesterday the sun returned with brilliant apologies and warm entreaties. The earth was still frozen, our porch and stairs still a solid pool of ice, yet something of an ambient flow was beginning to stir.
Encouraged by the dazzling rays of light we immediately ventured out to experience the truth of writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation
‘…walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”
What she said. And what Thoreau said. I began to think about perambulations, pedestrianism, peregrinations; all those lovely, fascinating words relating to the philosophy and exercise of walking. Like sweetmeats to the wordsmith, they animate the curiosity, savor of possibility, and my eager thoughts begin to rise like puffs of steam in warm sunlight.
“The distance is nothing when one has a motive.” Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
This is the magic of walking; though our steps may be regular, our chosen path familiar, linear or even slightly curved, our thoughts are left free to wander far away from our feet. The same tree on our customary path looks different in all types of light, and radiates new possibilities. In elliptical, soaring patterns, our imagination makes great loops of thought in the sky, connecting philosophical dots, shooting across eons of space to create galaxies of fantastic dimensions and people it with drama, conflict, resolution. Perhaps our thoughts take us back to the past or weave us ever more tightly to the dizzying matrix of the present.
Our eye catches sight of a beautiful bird, spiraling upward, or a flock of birds forming V patterns etched in thin silhouette, and our thoughts travel with them in after image, chasing similar shapes and spirals, or arcs in fractal waves like starlings.
Wherever we go in our mind, the beauty of it is that our feet are still on solid ground. There is comfort in that; we drop to earth with a soft thud to match our pedestrian gait and soon enough we are back to the warmth of the fireside and the well-rooted chair. Time enough to think about blue stockings and muddy petticoats, and wonder if anyone else would find such a subject interesting? And as to that, have you ever thought about the inherent contradiction in a word like pedestrianism?
Writer Margaret Lane alluded to this dichotomy of preference. In the foreword to her lovely collection of essays Purely for Pleasure *, she writes:
‘There is no unifying theme to be found in this handful of essays. They are personal excursions indulged in purely for pleasure—perambulations, so to speak, in chosen company.’
A happy life often consists of many small moments like this—curious bursts of pleasure that no one else might understand, let alone anticipate. I was thrilled to see that she thought of ‘perambulations’ in the same way I did. [for more on the wordsmith aspect of this, I refer you to The Curious Word]
In recent months, via this blog we have strolled through several gardens with several writers, taken brisk walks with poets, pondered John Muir’s epic mountain ramblings, and explored why Mary N. Murphree didn’t walk the heights and depths of the Blue Mountains but cleverly wrote as if she did.
Most of the famous walkers from history that come to mind are usually men. But have you met The Bluestockings? As a group, they fascinate. One particular Bluestocking, however, relates more specifically to my recent perambulations.
Her name is Elizabeth Carter, described as ‘the most Darkly, deeply, beautifully blue’ of all the bluestocking ladies.
As if it wasn’t enough that she taught herself to be fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Portugese, Arabic, French and Italian, and is best known for her seminal translation of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus from the Greek; had translated, by the time she was barely twenty-one Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explained for the use of Ladies, in Six Dialogues on Light and Colours, this remarkable woman also possessed the following talent:
‘She was a very good walker.’
Naturally I picked right up on this little gem of information. It comes by way of her fond nephew—he with the noble name of Montagu Pennington. Right after her death in 1806, he put together a biography of his beloved aunt, and includes some extracts of her letters and other ‘minor works’ that would not have been in print, otherwise.
So while one can read, as if from a distance, the product of her work by ebook, and one can read the famous approbations of Samuel Johnson or Lord Lytellton concerning her; yet dipping into some of Elizabeth Carter’s own casual conversation helps us to get to know the lively, humorous, very human person this woman was. We can walk a mile in her blue-stockinged feet, as it were, and playfully kick up our heels.
She writes to a friend:
‘I have played the rake most enormously for these two days, and sat up till near three in the morning. I walked three miles yesterday in a wind that I thought would have blown me out of this planet, and afterwards danced nine hours, and then walked back again. Did you ever see or hear of anything half so wonderful? And what is still more so, I am not dead, which I thought prior to tell you, for fear you should think this letter no sufficient proof of my being alive.”
This puts my recent days of fireside comfort to shame, but I can relate to her comments about wind and being blown off this planet. Her nephew pops in with a bit of narration:
‘In almost all weathers [she] walked a great deal, till very late in life. In a letter to a friend at Canterbury about this time, she thus speaks of her rambling even in the snow:
“In proportion as my sister has mended, I have recovered my spirits, I am now nearly as gay and wild as ever, and want to be flying all over the face of the earth, though this weather something cramps my genius, for I cannot meet with any body here romantic enough to take moonlight walks in the snow, and travel as people do in Lapland. If I was happy enough to be a Canterbury, what excursions should you and I make through trackless paths, and enjoy a season that less whimsical folks shudder at. Certainly we odd mortals, that take delight in such things as make the rest of the world very sententiously pronounce us mad, enjoy infinitely more pleasure than the sober prudent part of mankind who sit close to a fire because they are cold. To us every season has its charms; and even the gloomy prospects of winter have a kind of dark, sullen beauty, that strikes the mind with no disagreeable sensation. Having read you this curious dissertation upon winter, I should next proceed to descant upon the spring….’
She is a lively lady, with an excellent wit—‘this weather cramps my genius’, indeed!— and she puts me in mind of another excellent wit, whose short life is better known and exhaustively chronicled. Jane Austen—while not a peer of the famous Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, their lives, circles, and perambulations in Bath overlapped for a bit, and Austen would surely have known of her before Elizabeth Carter died in 1806.
Elizabeth Bennet, arguably Jane Austen’s most famous character, was a walker.
‘Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.’
She was shown into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise.’
We all know, that it was at this moment of surprise, when ‘Lizzie’ Bennet entered Netherfield Park with muddy skirts and glowing complexion, that Mr. Darcy lost his heart.
Jane Austen made sure we would never forget Elizabeth Bennet’s muddied petticoats. Or her stockings, for that matter. She was making an important statement about the character of Elizabeth. They were a symbol of Elizabeth’s independence, her spirit, and a statement of her worth. She truly didn’t care what the inhabitants of Netherfield Park thought ; of what Miss Bingley was to describe as ‘an abominable sort of conceited independence.’
Rebecca Solnit, previously quoted, and the author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, writes:
“[Elizabeth Bennett’s] solitary walks express the independence that literally takes the heroine out of the social sphere of the houses and their inhabitants, into a larger, lonelier world where she is free to think: walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”
Mrs. Hurst (neé Bingley) said spitefully about Elizabeth Bennet:
“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker.’
The brilliant part of Austen’s sleight of hand with this remark is that Mrs. Hurst has no idea of the compliment she has just paid in the attempt to denigrate.
It is clear from the body of Austen’s work, that this was no mere isolated capture of a fictional character. Jane Austen, herself, loved to walk and enjoy the natural world. This love has been infused into her novels. It is the ‘lesser’ characters of Austen’s stories who are not fond of walking; such as illustrated by the famous “take a turn about the room” line from Miss Bingley:
“Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude.”
The following extract from Persuasion, regarding the fretful Mary Musgrove, illustrates the same point, but in a different way:
‘It was a very fine November day, and the Miss Musgroves came through the little grounds, and stopped for no other purpose than to say, that they were going to take a long walk, and therefore concluded Mary could not like to go with them; and when Mary immediately replied, with some jealousy at not being supposed a good walker, “Oh, yes, I should like to join you very much, I am very fond of a long walk…I cannot imagine why they should suppose I should not like a long walk…Everybody is always supposing that I am not a good walker.’
No one supposed that of Dorothy Wordsworth. (1771-1855)
The journal of Dorothy who accompanied William on most of his journeys on foot, has been called ‘a journal of ambulation’.
“Walked with Coleridge over the hills.”
“Walked through the woods.”
“Walked upon the hilltops.”
“Walked by moonlight.”
“Walked I know not where.”
Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals are online, and the entries that detail her walks are numerous. Rain, hail, deep snow, almost nothing kept Dorothy Wordsworth from walking her beloved country.
I take comfort in entries like this, though they are rare:
‘Friday, 5th.—A cold snowy morning. Snow and hail showers. We did not walk.’
Dorothy’s famous brother, William Wordsworth, poet of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ fame, was known for being a champion walker. However, Wordsworth wandered in his poetic ramblings less lonely than is usually thought, for his faithful sidekick and long suffering sister was usually with him.
“I can always walk over a moor with a light foot.” Said Dorothy.
The two made a memorable sight for the locals. Wordsworth, tall and ungainly in profile, had a distinctive, slouching, shuffling gait, and muttered poetry aloud as he walked—described by their neighbors as ‘booing about’.
‘He goes bumming and muffing, and talking to hissen, but while’s he’s as sensible as you or me.’
As Helen Bevington writes*:
‘With Dorothy silent at his side, he composed the whole of ‘Tintern Abbey’ in his head, muffing and booing along for four or five days in July, 1798. He kept at it from the time they left Tintern, crossed the river Wye, returned twice more to Tintern for another look at the scenery, and walked on—till he finally ended, on a note of benediction to his sister, one evening just as they entered Bristol.’
“Not a line of it was altered and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol,” he said.’
Dorothy, when young, had the ‘long stride of a Lake Country girl.’ Tanned and slender, she was described as ‘looking wild’ (shades of Elizabeth Bennet!) in her eyes, but her heart was gentle, her manner shy and eccentric.
Dorothy as a walker, was epic. Possibly even obssessive. She accompanied, not only her brother, but went on walking journeys of her own through their beloved Lake District. Her petticoats must have been constantly muddy. In response to complaints about her solitary rambles over the landscape (considered unseemly back in the day) William Wordsworth championed his sister with—what else but?— a poem:
‘To A Young Lady Who Has Been Reproached for Taking Long Walks in the Country.’
Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, published in 1956, immediately brought this shy, wild, lonely individual into public view.
Saturday, [Dec.] 26th.— … We walked to Rydale. Grasmere Lake a beautiful image of stillness, clear as glass, reflecting all things. The wind was up, and the waters sounding. The lake of a rich purple, the fields a soft yellow, the island yellowish-green, the copses red-brown, the mountains purple, the church and buildings, how quiet they were!’
Monday, 12th.— … The ground covered with snow. Walked to T. Wilkinson’s and sent for letters. The woman brought me one from William and Mary. It was a sharp, windy night. ….I had time to look at the moon while I was thinking my own thoughts….’
Dear, troubled Dorothy. She so often was alone, ‘thinking her own thoughts’. Whatever thoughts these might have been, she did not share them in her journal. Her restless mind matched her restless feet, and whatever drove her on in these rambles finally stilled her feet by taking her mind. Dorothy Wordsworth became quietly senile, and lived the final twenty years of her life upstairs alone, in an attic.
Tuesday, 13th April.—I walked along the lake side. The air was become still, the lake was of a bright slate colour, the hills darkening….Sheep resting. All things quiet.’
All quiet here, too. And the sheep are even resting. The squirrels, however, are busier than ever. I’ll just leave you with this snippet from the life of the eighteenth-century novelist Fanny Burney–a remarkable woman who was a remarkable walker.
Only, in her case, she learned to walk backward.
Curious? We’ll be returning to her in a later post. Till then…
*Margaret Lane, Purely For Pleasure; A Collection of literary-biographical essays, Knopf, 1967
*Beautiful, Lofty People, by Helen Bevington, 1946 (long out of print but worth finding)