It is tempting to imagine that Jane Austen may have made use of some of the tales that she heard Captain Benjamin Clement recounting at dinners and other social events at Chawton in Hampshire, making us grateful that he was rescued from drowning at the Battle of Trafalgar (see our blog post below on Mansfield Park 200 years). Many people in England were unable to swim, though it was becoming popular at seaside resorts, usually for health reasons.
Swimming was certainly not encouraged in the Royal Navy for fear of unhappy seamen swimming off to freedom. But the most famous scene in the 1995 BBC TV series of Pride and Prejudice is where Elizabeth Bennet suddenly encounters Mr Darcy, played by Colin Firth, emerging from a swim in the lake, his shirt clinging to his body. Jane Austen does not actually mention swimming in her novel. Instead, Elizabeth, her aunt and her uncle have just had a guided tour of Mr Darcy’s house, Pemberley, believing him to be away. This was not unusual, because it was acceptable for visitors of the right class to be shown round properties. Once they have finished their tour, they are met by the gardener at the hall door:
“As they walked across the lawn towards the river, Elizabeth turned back to look again; her uncle and aunt stopped also, and while the former was conjecturing as to the date of the building, the owner of it himself suddenly came forward from the road, which led behind it to the stables.”
If Elizabeth had not looked back, they would have missed seeing Darcy, who had just arrived at Pemberley and was walking from the stables – not swimming! Even so, it has become an iconic Austen scene, and in a recent review of our book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, under “paperback must reads”, the Daily Mail reviewer praised it as a “scholarly but accessible history of Georgian England … A must for anyone who wants a peek under Mr Darcy’s wet shirt…”!