This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on August 16, 2019. Enjoy!
Recently I came across the meme below and I was shocked. So shocked, in fact, that I gasped.
What’s that you say? You gasped too? OK, but perhaps not for the same reason. 🙂 While many a female heart has fluttered at the sight of Colin Firth/Fitwilliam Darcy in a wet shirt, I was shocked at the idea that Fitzwilliam Darcy couldn’t swim. What? Georgian men generally didn’t swim? I thought I knew a lot about the Regency period, but this was a new one on me. Naturally I had to investigate this claim. The fact that during my research I would inevitably come across many more images of Darcy in a wet shirt was just a bonus. Honest!
So it turns out that the answer to, “Could Regency period gentlemen swim?” and more specifically, “Could Darcy swim?” is not completely clear cut. A person could make a good argument either way.
It turns out that in the days leading up to the Regency period, swimming was done as much for hygiene as for recreation. In an era when bath water had to be hauled inside a house, heated up on a stove, and then carried laboriously to a tub somewhere, it made sense for gentlemen to skinny dip in the great outdoors whenever circumstances and the weather permitted. The problem was, circumstances and weather did not permit. Most gentlemen spent a lot of time in urbanized areas such as London, where ready access to a pond or river simply wasn’t to be had. And, of course, having no access to a large body of water made it pretty difficult to learn to swim.
To be sure, many English men and women went to Bath to “take the waters,” meaning that they drank the water from the mineral springs and/or immersed themselves in them. But that was just sitting and soaking in the hot water, not swimming. Also, we know that sea bathing was a popular activity for both men and women of the well to do classes, but whether the people bathing in the sea were actually swimming or just wading and splashing about is not clear.
Besides this, swimming in the great outdoors required a man to get, well, naked. And being naked in the great outdoors was just such a non-English thing to do. People in warm climates, especially exotic “heathen” locations, might frolic in the water with barely a stitch of clothing, but Englishmen were not heathens, thank you very much. sniff A proper Englishman would simply not be so exposed in front of strangers. He especially would not be so undignified in front of his social inferiors. If he did go in the water “au natural” it was likely to be in a secluded setting where he could let his hair down, so to speak, in private. So I think Darcy would have been very unlikely to go skinny dipping while in town.
For all of these reasons even most English sailors did not know how to swim. They were doomed to panic and drown if they fell overboard. The ones who did learn how to swim usually learned while visiting one of those exotic “heathen” ports.
Yet there were definitely some gentlemen in Regency England who learned how to swim. Not everyone avoided the water. We have a book written by the Englishman Everard Digby in 1587, who published a detailed manual, complete with illustrations, showing various swimming strokes and techniques. We also know that students at Cambridge hired “watermen” to watch them while they swam. The job of the watermen was, in essence, to jump in and rescue any young man who was in obvious distress. Clearly the watermen themselves had to be excellent swimmers, and some of their charges would have been as well. Finally, there is a charming story of Benjamin Franklin visiting England as a young man and teaching two friends there how to swim in the Thames. Before he returned to America, Franklin gave a swimming demonstration in Chelsea that both amazed and delighted his onlookers.
Darcy fans should be aware that in the 1700’s the extremely posh boys’ schools of Eton and Harrow decided their students should learn how to swim, both to avoid potential drownings and for the obvious health benefits. They designated “bathing” areas outdoors and encouraged their charges to participate. So if Darcy attended either of these elite institutions he was at least exposed (pardon the pun!) to the activity.
So, did Darcy know how to swim? Did that famous scene in the 1995 film have any possible basis in real life? Or would Darcy have sunk like a stone if he ever ventured into deep water?
Taking all the evidence into consideration, I think it is very possible that Darcy knew how to swim. He had access to swimming areas at Pemberley and was most likely encouraged in the activity while he was away at school. Being an upper class gentleman, he also had time to devote to learning the necessary skills. I like to think that he might even have helped the timid Georgiana enter the waters and try her hand. (There is at least one JAFF out there where this is a key part of the plot!) Most importantly, as the lord of the manor Darcy could swim in privacy, not worrying about ever being caught in an awkward position by unexpected visitors. At least, until a certain young lady from Hertfordshire showed up without warning. 🙂
But above all, this is Fitzwilliam Darcy we’re talking about, a man among men. Strong, handsome, and virile, knowledgeable on every subject, a superb fencer, a skilled equestrian, and the love of Elizabeth Bennet’s life. OF COURSE he knew how to swim! Or at least he knew how to look good in a wet shirt. 🙂
What do you think? Would Darcy sink or swim in that wonderful lake scene? Let me know in your comments below!
Special thank you to the Jane Austen Centre for allowing use of their meme here!