“Where health is at stake, nothing else should be considered.”
I used to skim over that line from “Emma” faster than a rich gent in want of a wife, all the quicker to get back to what really matters in Jane Austen's writing: romance, gossiping into tiny tea cups, the giddy delights of winning the Regency marriage lottery – surely the only things Austen was put on this good Earth for.
Nurtured since adolescence on reruns of Colin Firth diving into English ponds, I never imagined Austen had other secrets up her muslin sleeve, that those seemingly random lines about “health” in her novels reveal another aspect of her brilliant grasp on life, and all that makes life better.
“Health” is mentioned more than a hundred times in Austen's six classic novels – a high frequency for pure romance yarns. Themes of health are so conspicuous throughout her writings, you can trace them from her earliest teenage stories to her final, unfinished novel “Sanditon.”
So cherished and pervasive, the blessings of “improvement of health” run right alongside Austen's usual marry-man-of-fortune formula for success. The likes of Marianne Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Smith must all experience a restoration of health before their tales can end happily ever after. But I noticed none of this until I required some “improvement of health” myself.
Newly initiated into the metabolic wobbles of turning 30, when muffin-tops materialize out of nowhere, I rummaged through health books for the latest advice on nutrition and exercise. That's when I made a realization that almost sent me running for the smelling salts: There were shocking similarities between the habits health researchers prescribe today and those Austen extolled more than 200 years ago.
If you pick up one of her novels and ignore the romance bits, you'll notice her hints immediately.
Hidden in those ostensibly simple lines about health are wise wellness philosophies covering food, fitness and making peace with one's body image. It's a sweeping and holistic health code with timeless tips from a woman who mastered the art of human observation.
And once I decided to try out her health maxims, I discovered that not only do her health strategies work in the 21st century, but they are as elegant and easy as everything else she wrote. Here are a few of the lessons.
Living in an era with a weight fixation almost as neurotic as our own, Austen calmly disputes the idea that a number on our scales or waistlines somehow reflects our health.
Austen's characters don't focus on their weight, not because they can't (there was indeed a fashion for weighing oneself in the Regency era, a craze Lord Byron embraced, to disastrous results), but because they see health for what it truly is. From the Anglo-Saxon hale, meaning “whole,” true health brings self-evident harmony to your body, from tip to toe. Hence, Austen's frequent reminders to consider the whole “picture of health.”
Our energy, our skin, our relationship to food and exercise, our stress and emotions, how we feel and think about our bodies – all are important to Austen for determining true wellness. In short, if you are running low on what Austen would term “fresh life and vigour” – no matter what the scale says – you are not healthy in her book.
In fact, excessive thinness incurs Austen's literary wrath. No one stunningly thin is considered healthy or attractive in her novels. “I am grown wretchedly thin,” admits a former beauty in “Northanger Abbey” while Miss de Bourgh is repeatedly described as “thin” and “sickly” in “Pride and Prejudice.”
It was Austen's rebuttal to a body fad sweeping the fashionable circles of her day, the Regency equivalent of thinspiration, which glorified the same sickly thin shapes strutting across many runways and magazines today. It went against Austen's core ideas of comfort and common sense. Forcing our bodies out of their biologically set weight range isn't just unhealthy and unsustainable, it's unnecessary.
Presupposing the diversity of genetics, Austen knew that attractive, healthy bodies come in “every possible variation of form,” which is why you'll find some of the most diverse and progressive examples of physical beauty in her fiction: from “stout” and curvy Lydia Bennet to short and “plump” Harriet Smith to the solid “squareness” of Mrs. Croft. To borrow Austen's charmingly domestic turn of phrase, everybody has a “true size for rational happiness.” It might be naturally “slender” like Anne Elliot's in “Persuasion,” but it's very rarely shaped like a stick.
Eat like a heroine
Austen's advice on love, lust and outmaneuvering the odd creepy vicar is just as sharp today. But she also left us some brilliant advice on maintaining a proper relationship with food.
Bad food romances, after all, are just as common in Austenworld as bad hookups – from Mr. Woodhouse's joy-sapping diet in “Emma” to Dr. Grant's fatal eating binges in “Mansfield Park.” They serve as relevant warnings to our current foodie culture, just as Austen's heroines serve as guiding lights.
Without counting a single calorie, Austen's leading ladies exist within every dieter's nirvana: fully enjoying food as one of the dynamic “comforts of life” without it ever controlling them. They pull it off by sticking to some unique mental strategies all of us can emulate today, from keeping emotions out of eating (Lizzie famously refuses to gush over “ragout” with Mr. Hurst in “Pride and Prejudice”) to the importance of eating “in company” – food is far safer, for example, in Austen's novels the more it is communally divided.
Austenworld even has its own snacking guidelines, better known at the time as “nuncheon,” a noontime nibble which brilliantly anticipates the importance of insulin control on weight management.
Mr. Darcy aside, you might call it Austen's biggest fantasy – her seemingly unrealistic insistence that exercise is fun, enjoyable and, above all, easy. In fact, use the most famous exercise whoop from “Sense and Sensibility” – “Is there a felicity in the world ... superior to this?” – and you'd get laughed out of your local gym, where aches and agony are an expected part of any effective workout.
But look again. Because, far from being weak, Austen was espousing something very smart, known today as intuitive exercise, the sensible awareness that our bodies are experts at avoiding pain, that pushing them beyond their physical comfort zones is not a sustainable fitness strategy. For proof, consider that modern American gyms lose almost a third of their members annually, whereas the most intuitive exercise available (i.e., walking) has the lowest dropout rate of any physical activity, according to the American Heart Association.
No surprise that the pleasures of “pleasant walks” keep Austen's heroines at consistently high fitness levels, ranking up far higher pedometer readings than the average American. Period diaries reveal that members of Austen's class could easily walk up to 7 miles a day, simply because they kept exercise as light and pleasurable as possible, resting whenever needed.
“Shall any of us object to being comfortable?” asks one of the intuitive exercisers in “Mansfield Park.”
In my first forays into Austen's health code, nothing surprised me more than her (rather hippie-ish) beliefs that a good diet requires a daily dose of nature. In her novels, air, water, sunlight and earth are treated almost like vitamins.
Jane Fairfax, for instance, enters the story line of “Emma” only after being prescribed more fresh “air, for the recovery of her health.” It was Austen's nearly 200-year head start on Edward O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis – the conviction that humans need routine contact with nature to thrive both physically and mentally.
Science now supports all of Austen's nature prescriptions, including the importance of morning light on hormone regulation (“A walk before breakfast does me good,” Jane says in “Emma”), the realities of sick-building syndrome (“bad air” indoors affects Fanny's health in “Mansfield Park”), and the rejuvenating magic of forest bathing (a wooded grove brings “comfort” to Anne's mind in “Persuasion”).
Even Austen's approval for getting a bit dirty while walking – “her petticoat, six inches deep in mud,” as they say in “Pride and Prejudice” – finds fresh agreement in the latest health research that suggests exposure to dirt might be good for us.
Not too bad for a mere romance writer who figured out the basics centuries ago: We all have “a taste for nature” imprinted on our DNA, a missing puzzle piece as vital and revitalizing as love itself.