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|swimming and bathing
Written by Line
(3/2/2003 10:15 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, swimming, penned by kathy taylor
I had to add my two cents' worth about swimming and bathing. I don't know how they did it in JA's time, but a fascinating source about English social customs at the turn of the last century by someone who was actually there is Agatha Christie's Autobiography (she was born in 1890). She often went swimming (probably the breast stroke, not the Australian crawl!) at the public beaches in Torquay with her sister. Merrie is right when she says that women entered the water in a "bathing machine". Christie describes it this way: "On (the beach)there were eight bathing machines in the charge of an ancient man, whose non-stop job was to let the machines up and down in the water. You entered your bathing machine - a gaily-painted striped affair - saw that both doors were safely bolted, and began to undress with a certain amount of caution, because at any moment the elderly man might decide it was your turn to be let down into the water. At that moment there would be a frantic rocking, and the bathing machine would grind its way slowly over the loose stones, flinging you about from side to side. The bathing machine would stop as suddenly as it had started. You then proceeded with your undressing and got into your bathing dress... Once fully attired, you unbolted the door on the water side. If the old man had been kind to you, the top step was practically level with the water. You descended and there you were, decorously up to your waist." Though it changed over the years, until she was 13 the beaches were strictly segregated by sex (though of course young boys like her nephew could go with their mothers). She says "As far as I remember, the men were not particularly anxious to avail themselves of the joys of mixed bathing; they stuck rigidly to their own private preserve. Such of them as arrived at Meadfoot (one of the new "mixed" beaches) were usually embarrassed by the sight of their sisters' friends in what they still considered a state of near nudity" (turn-of-the-century swimming costumes). However, she adds "the Torbay Yacht Club was stationed...just above the Ladies' Bathing Cove. Although the beach was properly invisible from the Club windows, the sea around the raft was not, and, according to my father, a good many of the gentlemen spent their time with opera glasses enjoying the sight of female figures displayed in what they hopefully thought of as almost a state of nudity!" About bathing suits she says: "It was at first the rule that I should wear stockings when I bathed. I don't know how French girls kept their stockings on: I was quite unable to do so. Three or four vigorous kicks when swimming, and my stockings were dangling a long way beyond my toes; they were either sucked off altogether or wrapped round my ankles like fetters by the time I emerged. I think that the French girls one saw bathing in fashion-plates owed their smartness to the fact that they never actually swam, only walked gently into the sea and out again to parade the beach." (pg. 145-8) I suspect that in Austen's time, the "bathing" that was done at fashionable seaside resorts was really what we would call wading - you never went in farther than you could comfortably stand.
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