Guest Post: Jane Austen & The Art of Walking (#AustenInAugustLGR)

Happy Tuesday, fellow Austen readers! I’m pleased to announce that the first Austen in August guest post is coming from Adam of Roof Beam Reader. You all know Adam as the creator of this wonderful reading event, and today he’s here with the topic of the art of walking in Jane Austen’s writing. Welcome, Adam!


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.

28244As 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.’

‘Certainly not.’

‘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)

ppv3n56bThis 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.

darcy-and-lizzy-2The 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.

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16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Jane Austen & The Art of Walking (#AustenInAugustLGR)

  1. Great Post!

    One thing this taught me was how Elizabeth is a bit unconventional in all the walking that she engages in. This truly does add a dimension to her character that I did not realize before.

    I also really love that map that you posted 🙂

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    • I love referring to maps (and calendars) when reading books, even if I have to create them myself. In this case, someone did the work for us, fortunately, but another thing you’ll notice about Austen is she can be rather coy about dates – she’ll drop hints (“It had been three weeks since…”, “The party was a fortnight ago, and in three days we would be…”, etc) but rarely gives absolute, specific dates. It can be fun to investigate these things to see just what happens over the course of the narrative year. Why do some chapters cover an entire month, while others cover only a day? What does that say about the importance of the events – does more or less narrative time devoted to a subject mean it is more or less important overall? And how does all of that tie-in to things like the four seasons? Such an adventure! 😀

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  2. Great post! I also love when Lizzie is walking through Darcy’s house with her Aunt & Uncle .Her awe at the surroundings and the thoughts that the house could have been hers show her personality and her shifting feelings so well 🙂

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  3. Interesting post–now that you mention it, there is a lot plot that happens during walks in Austen. From Marianne tumbling downhill during a stormy walk to Anne overhearing Louisa and the Captain to Emma and Harriet encountering Mr. Elton whilst on a walk, to Fanny having to take refuge at the Parsonage during another stormy walk.

    >…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

    And Darcy gives Elizabeth his explanatory letter while she is out for a walk as he knew she would be!

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  4. An amazing post, Adam. I had never thought about it from an academic and spacial point of view, but while I read “Mansfield Park” I felt the need to go out for a walk so as to exercise, as they say in the book, even though I was reading it in January!

    I think walking also lets the female characters break away from the typical domestic surroundings that were constructed as appropiate for women. Austen’s female characters were more than heroines, they were explorers and (domestic) law-breakers!

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    • Yes, indeed! There’s much more to Austen than meets the eye. Her awareness of gender roles and gender politics is beyond astute, and it is brilliantly but subtly executed in each of her works. You’re spot on!

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    • Yes, she’s quite the talent! And I can’t imagine ever needing a reason to read Austen! Austen in August is more like an opportunity for a large group of people to get together and enjoy her, talk about her, learn about her all together, at the same time…and look forward to doing it all over again in another year. 🙂

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  5. This is indeed part of what makes Austen such a great novelist — that nothing is incidental to the story. The spaces where the characters find themselves and the activities they engage in are always meaningful (not, however, symbolic in a heavy-handed way). I will re-read all the novels with new eyes for the significance of walking!

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  6. Thanks Adam! I really enjoyed this post. I just finished Pride and Prejudice and although there are many interesting walks in this book, my favourite by far is when Lizzy walked miles and miles to get to Netherfield. I love the idea of her walking in determined to see her sister and Bingley’s group surprised/aghast at the concept a girl would walk that far by herself… and in the mud!

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