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Meanderer’s Meditation: The Lost Art of Women Walking

A few weeks ago, as I was browsing the new book shelves at the library, I came upon Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science , Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism. As a semi-regular regular walker, of course, I checked it out. I started reading it. I enjoyed it for a bit. Here’s a bit I enjoyed:

There are, I think, certain ways in which sex and walking closely resemble each other. For one thing, they’re both at heart basic, simple, repetitive activities that just everyone does at one time or another. And yet despite being so ordinary and commonplace, they’re both capable of great sophistication and elaboration. They can be completely banal and meaningless, and yet they can also involve great passions and adventures. Both can lead you into strange and previously unknown territories: a walk on the wild side. (p. 21)

Just as I settled in for a very enjoyable read, I got to his list of “standard texts on walking.” (pp 25-26). He lists Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, Hawthorne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, De Quincey, Blake, Clare, Keats, Boswell, Johnson, Twain, Dickens, Michaux, O’Hara, Joyce, Auster, Benjamin, Flaubert, Proust, Borges, Hillaby, Jenkins, Abbey, Bryson, Snow and Chatwin. All of them men. The only woman he mentions is a sister. “And Wordsworth, and also his sister Dorothy, who walked with him and wrote about it in her diary.” Nicholson does quote from her diary, which perhaps is a small sop, but in this long list of writers who walk, this list of walkers who write, there is not one well-known woman author listed.

If he had just listed one or two in this list of 28 writers, I would not mind as much. But there are none. Only a sister who walks and writes but says of herself, “I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author give Wm. the Pleasure of it.” Though in reading up on Dorothy Wordsworth, it turns out that William “relied on his sister’s detailed accounts of nature scenes when writing poems and borrowed freely from her journals.”

This admittedly very small section of Nicholson’s book is like a rough sketch map of the terrain of literature about walking. It is worth following him along the path; many of the authors he lists are good traveling companions. But if we really want to explore the territory, we need more paths. We need to look for trails laid down by women as well as men. We need to remember that some path are closer to home, but being closer to home does not make the walk less valuable.

Let’s walk for a bit with Jane Austen. It is true that some of her heroines are marked by an inability to walk far- Fanny from Mansfield Park- but most of them walk quite a bit. Much of the action happens while people are walking. No, they do not walk ten miles through the “wilds.” But they do walk, often with purpose and energy. “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 ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (Pride and Prejudice).

I am not as well acquainted with Jane Eyre, having read it only a few times- long, long ago- but in skimming sections of the novel and online summaries, it seems that many of the key scenes, from her introduction to Rochester, to his first proposal to her, happen while she is out walking.

I walked a while on the pavement; but a subtle, well-known scent– that of a cigar–stole from some window; I saw the library casement open a handbreadth; I knew I might be watched thence; so I went apart into the orchard. No nook in the grounds more sheltered and more Eden-like; it was full of trees, it bloomed with flowers: a very high wall shut it out from the court, on one side; on the other, a beech avenue screened it from the lawn. At the bottom was a sunk fence; its sole separation from lonely fields: a winding walk, bordered with laurels and terminating in a giant horse- chestnut, circled at the base by a seat, led down to the fence. Here one could wander unseen. (Jane Eyre).

In Austen and Bronte, the walks may not be for miles and miles. Women’s walks were more circumscribed than men’s walks, but women walked, and most days they walked much further than we do today (regardless of our gender). Walks obviously were part of daily life. Walks were places that private conversations happened. Walks were where proposals are made. The physical movement from one place to another was the liminal space that moved characters from one life stage to another.

A more adventurous walk can be found in Virginia Woolfe’s Street Haunting: A London Adventure, which I will not try to summarize. I will just quote at length.

No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter—rambling the streets of London.

And much later in the essay

Walking home through the desolation one could tell oneself the story of the dwarf, of the blind men, of the party in the Mayfair mansion, of the quarrel in the stationer’s shop. Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.

If I had time, I would dig up many more examples from literature. I also would find lay out some examples from writers of color and writers that are not from of America and Europe. But because I want to publish this dose of The Good (and Not So Good) Words tonight, I will leave you with just a few women who write about walking; sometimes walking is central, sometimes it is just part of daily life.

Walk for a while with one of these women who write.

Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Lenore Kandel, “Wonder Wander,”
“I wander around soft-shoed easy-legged” is just one of the amazing lines in this short poem.

Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks From the Office for Soft Architecture

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
I continued walking in this manner for some time, endeavouring by bodily exercise to ease the load that weighed upon my mind. I traversed the streets without any clear conception of where I was or what I was doing. My heart palpitated in the sickness of fear, and I hurried on with irregular steps, not daring to look about me.

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
The way Anne and Diana went to school WAS a pretty one. Anne thought those walks to and from school with Diana couldn’t be improved upon even by imagination . . . Anne, starting out alone in the morning, went down Lover’s Lane as far as the brook. Here Diana met her, and the two little girls went on up the lane under the leafy arch of maples

Francis Burnett, The Secret Garden
After the ceremony Colin always took his walking exercise and throughout the day he exercised his newly found power at intervals. Each day he grew stronger and could walk more steadily and cover more ground.

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