While most of us have focused on the heart of Jane Austen’s novels or its portrayal of the society of the period, Austen herself was equally fascinated by something rather more functional: health. For some time now, I’ve been following the Jane Austen diet. Yes, you did read that correctly. To quote the character Mr Collins in the author’s Pride and Prejudice, “do not make yourself uneasy”. Because not only is the diet real, it’s been hiding right under our literary noses for more than two centuries.
It is incorporated into nearly everything Austen wrote, as this quote from Emma (1816) shows: “Where health is at stake, nothing else should be considered.” Themes of health are woven into her earliest stories; they continue strongly throughout Emma and Persuasion (1817); and are centre-stage in her last, unfinished novel Sanditon (set in a seaside health resort). Ironically, as Austen’s own health was fading [she died at the age of 41 after becoming ill with what is today thought to have been Addison’s disease], she wrote about cherishing true health even more.
In fact, look closer at her fiction and you’ll find that “improvement of health” has always been a part of Austen’s happily-ever-after package, freely bestowed on her most worthy characters, from Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1811) to Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who begins her own story a bit “faded” in the physical department. Yet to gradually regain one’s natural “bloom” is the birthright of Austen’s great and good. Even the word “health” itself pops up more than one hundred times in her six novels.
Yet if Austen’s passion for doling out “secure and permanent health” is news to you, join the club; I only recently discovered it myself. Though interested in Jane Austen since adolescence it wasn’t until I neared my 30th birthday that I noticed something remarkable. What Austen had to say about health more than 200 years ago, and what science says today, is astonishingly similar.
The way her healthiest characters eat, exercise and think about their bodies can be seen to have unique patterns and modern parallels to heed. The discovery led me on a personal research project that has forever transformed my image of Austen – from ‘dowdy Hampshire spinster’ to timeless health guru with a sparkling wit. So, for lack of a better description, I’ve been on the Jane Austen ‘diet’ for more than two years now, incorporating wellness strategies found her in her writing into everyday life, finding new and fascinating ways to approach old body problems. Here are just a few of the many health lessons that Jane Austen advocated in her writing…
Look at the whole “picture of health”
Whatever might be said for Austen’s perhaps narrow formula for matrimonial bliss (handsome gent + large fortune = success), when it comes to health she was by no means a reductionist. Compared to today’s clinical definitions of health – often defined by numbers on a bathroom scale or on a BMI chart – Austen viewed health in far broader terms.
Influenced by classical medicine and the ‘non-naturals’ theory, which based good health more on environmental factors and less on fretting over one’s body size, health for Austen seemed to hold a refreshingly literal meaning. The word ‘health’ etymologically means ‘whole’, from the Old English hale; something that should bring a rejuvenating wholeness to one’s body, mood and mind. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that Austen’s healthiest characters don’t look inward in their pursuit of health – worrying about their corset size or reflection in a ballroom mirror – but take many other factors into consideration: their energy levels; their relationship with food and exercise; their physical comfort and mental happiness; even the glow of their skin. Austen calls it the bigger “picture of health” in Emma, something that can flourish, regardless of body size.
Indeed, rather than promoting a one-size-fits-all standard of physical beauty, there’s a wide and progressive range of healthy, energetic body sizes in Austen’s novels – from “plump” Harriet Smith in Emma to the “squareness” of Mrs Croft in Persuasion, to the “stout”, curvy appeal of Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. And don’t forget pretty Jane Fairfax in Emma, described in delightfully ambiguous terms as “a most becoming medium, between fat and thin”. In short, attractive bodies can come in “every possible variation of form”, says Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, a refreshing statement that brilliantly anticipates our current understanding of diverse body shapes.
Such examples show Austen’s thoughtful rebuttal to the contemporary vogue of reducing health to a number on a scale or dress size during the late 18th century. At the time, the new-fangled fad of weighing oneself (on a large hanging scale) was fuelling a dangerous cultural obsession with weight that, paradoxically, sapped the health out of many of Austen’s contemporaries. This was the age of a growing trend towards sickly-thin physiques that sought to mirror the wastage of tuberculosis, a disease which had ravaged Europe during the period. Marianne Dashwood even gets sucked into the craze in Sense and Sensibility. “Confess, Marianne”, says her cooler headed sister Elinor. “Is not there something interesting to you in the flushed cheek, hollow eye, and quick pulse of a fever?”
Though perhaps no one fell harder for the “tubercular look” than the famous Regency poet, Lord Byron. Never one to do anything by half measures, Byron was one of history’s first neurotic weight watchers, compulsively weighing himself on hanging scales and putting himself on endless rounds of starvation diets when the number wasn’t to his liking.
Yet Austen repeatedly seems to refute the cultural fad that thinness alone has any real connection to “health and happiness”. Just ask any of the comical characters in Austen’s novels who spend too much time myopically focused on their bodies while forgetting the bigger picture of total wellness (Mr Woodhouse, Mary Musgrove, Lady Bertram, to name a few).
Don’t be a foodie
Despite the ostensibly sparse references to food in her novels, Austen seemingly understood the modern ‘foodie’ culture better than most of us do today. Much like our own, the Georgian era was an age of epicurean excess. Thanks to improved farming techniques, food was more abundant in Austen’s England than ever before and the rising leisure class had more time to eat it. The combination posed inevitable health risks, plunging the upper classes into a mini obesity epidemic. As the 18th-century physician Thomas Short observed: “I believe no age did ever afford more instances of corpulency than our own.”
Austen reflected this concern in her fiction, creating food-obsessed characters like Mr Hurst in Pride and Prejudice “who lived only to eat”. But while her contemporaries were advocating stringent diets to remedy the problem, Austen had other, more practical secrets up her sleeve. Her novels reference mental strategies for how to eat, satisfyingly and sanely, in any age of excess.
One of her ‘tips’ involves adopting what she would call “a proper air of indifference” to food: the importance of keeping one’s relationship with food at an emotional arm’s length. Her fictional heroines are famous for it, refusing to talk, think, or emote about food more than is absolutely necessary. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Lizzie’s brief friendship with Mr Hurst comes to an awkward halt when she refuses to indulge him in a conversation on the giddy delights of French “ragout”, a highly-flavoured stew that he can’t seem to get enough of.
While Austen was not puritanical about food – far from it, she fully enjoyed its gustatory pleasures, as her personal letters attest. But she also knew the dietary pitfalls of developing a deeper, irrational romance with food. Just ask Dr Grant of Mansfield Park (1816), whose habit of emotional eating and its subsequent binges lead him to an early grave (one of the few rare characters to die in the course of her novels). Modern research confirms Austen’s intuitive wisdom. Much research now suggests that thinking about food when you’re not hungry can still trigger your pancreas to secrete insulin, which pumps powerful hunger signals to your brain. Austen’s writing displayed an insistence to never get too touchy-feely with food. Marianne and Elinor even refuse to dwell too long over a dinner menu at an inn in Sense and Sensibility.
But while Austen fully encouraged this mental diet of sorts, she never encouraged actual dietary deprivation. Quite the contrary. Austen seemed to grasp what science only started understanding in the 1950s, that the only way to stop obsessing about food is to start eating. It may seem paradoxical, but no one can trick their hunger hormones for too long and Austen certainly makes sure her heroines eat, in ways that are fully and naturally satisfying. Though she might be mentally stoic about food, Catherine Morland is proud of possessing “a good appetite” in Northanger Abbey. She simply eats when she’s hungry, even late at night after a ball. Emma Woodhouse, in turn, respects the food calls of nature, duly promising “that she would take something to eat, if hungry”.
Yet Austen’s simple reminders to eat well, regularly and without guilt, still feel as revolutionary today as they did in the early 1800s. Indeed, period fashions promoted exactly the opposite. “A woman should never be seen eating or drinking,” snickered Lord Byron, reflecting the sexist sentiment of the day, one that considered the natural act of eating as somehow an unwomanly enterprise. It was one of the first cultural fads Austen lambasted as a teenager with biting wit in her story, Love and Friendship, particularly in one frank acknowledgement: “It was first necessary to eat.” It was a fad she continued to rebut throughout her literary life.
Exercise like Elizabeth
Austen was a passionate and progressive advocate of exercise, especially for women. The 18th-century cult of sensibility had done its best to enfeeble the era’s definition of femininity, to spread “an idea of weakness”, as contemporary observers like Edmund Burke wrote. “Women are very sensible of this,” he wrote, “for which reason they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness”. Austen fought back: “Do not consider me now as an elegant female,” insists Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.
Though she was never the Regency equivalent of a modern gym rat, Austen embraced something far more thoughtful; a philosophy we might today call intuitive exercise. A world away from the leaden weights and agonised grunts of modern gyms, intuitive exercise is the belief that the most effective workouts involve easy, natural movements, that pushing our bodies too far beyond their physical comfort zones is not a sustainable strategy for lifelong fitness. There’s the sound logic of Austen’s observation in Mansfield Park: “Nothing ever fatigues me but doing what I do not like.”
It’s also interesting to note that only enjoyable, pleasure-producing words like “comfortable”, “delightful” and even “snug” define the daily workouts in Austen’s novels, with very little sweat or physical stress involved. Motion, frequent and routine, is all Austen advises, whether that’s a stroll to the nearest village, a potter about the garden, a country dance, or simply another “turn” around the room. Where we have guilt, ‘no-pain-no-gain’ attitudes, and the pressure to ‘power through’ the latest modern workout, Austen’s characters feel fit and fully satisfied by simply enjoying “the felicities of rapid motion” (then taking a comfortable breather whenever necessary).
Science seems to have caught up with Austen, rediscovering the truth behind the Regency medical idea that the human body is a ‘body machine’ that relies on more regular (not necessarily more vigorous) movement to keep its metabolic gears running smoothly. And walking, of course, has always been the easiest way to do just that.
Walking is certainly the exercise of choice in Austen’s world, where characters walk miles, every day, to the nearest house or village and enjoy consistently high levels of energy and physical fitness as a result. Radiating “life and vigour” in Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet eagerly jumps at the opportunity of taking a three-mile stroll to Netherfield to visit her sister. Period diaries confirm just how typical these daily strolls were; people of Austen’s class would often walk up to seven miles a day, just by visiting nearby friends and relations.
Develop a taste for nature
One of the most unexpected aspects of Austen’s health code has become, for me, one of her most surprisingly effective – her insistence that a naturally healthy diet requires a daily dose of nature itself. Getting outside and soaking up the sunshine and fresh air isn’t just encouraged in her novels, it’s practically prescribed as a wonder drug. The character Jane Fairfax, for example, is catapulted into the plot of Emma only after being advised to dose up on fresh country air for her health. Other characters who stay cooped up indoors, by contrast, ultimately suffer mysterious slumps to their overall wellbeing.
Though a solid component of historic medical theories since Hippocrates have studied nature’s impact on human health, many readers today still find Austen’s nature prescriptions something of a romantic mystery. But modern research is starting to appreciate that nature is indeed an essential nutrient too, just as Austen firmly believed. “I advise you to go out: the air will do you good,” says Sir Thomas with conviction in Mansfield Park.
Austen’s repeated calls to reconnect with nature – at the seaside at Lyme, on the rolling downs of Devonshire, or the gardens of Pemberley – is being scientifically supported in fascinating new ways. The recent interest in Japanese ‘forest bathing’, the importance of sunlight in regulating our happiness and hormone levels, and the modern dangers of ‘sick building syndrome’ (the myriad health risks of spending too much time indoors) – all find historic parallels and portents in Austen’s novels. After all, Austen fully grasped the original, wider scope of the word ‘diet’. Extending far beyond just food, diet derives from the Greek diaita, meaning ‘way of life’, a life made manifestly better by developing an Austen-style taste for nature.
Bryan Kozlowski is the author of The Jane Austen Diet: Austen’s Secrets to Food, Health, and Incandescent Happiness (Turner, March 2019). A passionate champion of “lit wit” – bringing the wisdom of classic literature in everyday life – his works have appeared in Vogue, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in April 2019