A spirited, witty and fresh reimagining of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’!
Lydia is the youngest Bennet sister and she’s sick of country life – instead of sewing and reading, she longs for adventure. When a red-coated garrison arrives in Merryton, Lydia’s life turns upside down. As she falls for dashing Wickham, she’s swept into a whirlwind social circle and deposited in a seaside town, Brighton. Sea-bathing, promenades and scandal await – and a pair of intriguing twins. Can Lydia find out what she really wants – and can she get it?
ON BATHING IN THE TIMES OF JANE AUSTEN
Guest Post by by Natasha Farrant
Modest reader, avert your eyes now if you are easily shocked.
On holiday in Portugal this August, I do confess that my greatest pleasure, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, was to throw myself into a bathing-pool wearing not a stitch of clothing. In the morning, I stumbled from my chamber, threw off my scanty nightclothes, and fell in for a quick, invigorating dip. At night… ah, at night, I swam for a long time by the light of the moon, until I had counted all the stars. On this same holiday, I also swam in the Atlantic Ocean, pitching myself against waves which at one point threatened to rip my two-piece costume from my body. And I did perform several upside-down yoga postures upon the beach in the same costume, and drink beer, and run about in a most unladylike manner after a ball…
That was me this summer, and it was glorious. There is literally no place I am happier than in the water, particularly if that water is the sea (though the naked moonlit pool dips were excellent too). My mother says it’s because when she was pregnant with me, she and my father lived in Greece for several months, and she swam every day. Add to this countless holidays spent on French Atlantic beaches with a nudist grandmother, and you start to understand just how much splashing about is in my blood. Water, for me is freedom, and when I came to write of Lydia Bennet’s escapades in Brighton, I knew the sea would be an important part of her story.
Sea-bathing in England started to become a “thing” in the mid-eighteenth century, when Dr Richard Russell, from Lewes in Sussex, went to Brighton to develop his theories on the medical properties of sea-water. He considered bathing to be particularly beneficial, but encouraged his patients to prepare their bodies for the outer properties of sea-water by first taking it internally for a time, drinking several glasses a day (mixed with milk if they didn’t like the taste). By the time my Lydia gets to Brighton, in 1812, sea-bathing had less to do with health and more to do with fashion, and it was highly regulated. Men and women used opposite ends of the beach (and there were all sorts of rules for how far away they should be from each other), and they entered the water by means of bathing machines, operated by dippers (for the men) and bathers (for the women). The bathing machines were essentially little horse-drawn caravans, in which bathers changed, before emerging onto a platform modestly (or not so modestly) hidden from the beach. Very few people could actually swim. The attendant’s job was then to dunk them five times under the water before allowing them to go and get dressed again. Curiously, despite all these efforts at concealing modesty, many of the eighteenth century ladies and most of the gentlemen actually bathed naked. If they weren’t naked, they wore simple shifts. The absurd woollen full body costumes belong to the Victorian era.
Fanny Burney, a scandalous late eighteenth-century author, describes her Brighton bathing experiences as follows:
“Mrs and the three Miss Thrales and myself all arose at six o’clock in the morning and “by the pale blink of the moon” we went to the seaside, where we had bespoke the bathing-women to be ready for us, and into the ocean we plunged. It was cold, but pleasant. I have bathed so often as to lose my dread of the operation, which now gives me nothing but animation and vigour.”
This was in November. In the Channel.
The bathing machines seem to capture so much of the essentials of human nature, not all of them good. Prudish, complicated, they exploit our gullibility and neediness when it comes to our health, our sheep-like devotion to fashion, our swiftness to exploit that devotion and neediness for monetary gain. And yet there is something touching about these absurd constructions, as bathers meekly put their fate into the hands of their attendants, determined to enjoy the delights of the sea.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the things that connect us to each other. On a research trip to Brighton before writing this book, I took myself to the eastern end of the beach where the women’s machines would have been, and spent a long time sitting on the shingle, imagining my Lydia bathing. Like Fanny Burnley, my Lydia gradually “loses her dread of the operation”. I imagined her throwing herself more and more willingly into the waves, the water breaking over her head, her screams of delight. The sea is the sea, whether you are dressed or naked, being dunked by a dipper or swimming freely. It was there when Dr Russell’s patients took their first tentative dunks, and it will be there long after we have gone. And even though Lydia is a fictional character, I know that the next time I walk along Brighton beach, I will be walking with her. I will smell the same sea air, and run the same pebbles through my hands, and paddle in the same water, and just for a moment, I will know what it felt like to be her.
Natasha Farrant is the author of The Things We Did For Love and the Bluebell Gadsby series, as well as two novels for grownups. Her books have been nominated for the Branford Boase Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian book prize and the Queen of Teen. The eldest of four siblings, she grew up in London, where she still lives with her husband, daughters and a large tortoiseshell cat. She can frequently be spotted wearing a hat, but has yet to don a bonnet.
Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride & Prejudice is out now!