As an activity, sea-bathing wasn’t really popularized until the 1750s by Dr. Russell of Brighton, and it didn’t really take off until the 1780s when the Prince of Wales began to patronize the village of Brighton, bringing the more “raffish elements of upper-class society” with him. The royal stamp of approval cleared the way for those who were hesitant to embrace the pastime of sea-bathing as not only acceptable, but desirable. Other villages along the coast (many of the ones Austen used in her novels) began to compete for the patronage of the elite, thus drawing the fashionable away from Bath (Lane 110).
Sea-bathing was thought to have potential health benefits, and it was an activity Austen truly enjoyed. We have an account in a letter written to her sister in September of 1804 which describes bathing at Lyme Regis as “so delightful” that she “stayed in rather too long” and wore herself out so much that she would avoid bathing on the following day. Sea-bathing would have certainly been one of the few exhilarating activities, like dancing, in which unmarried females were allowed to indulge (Hannon 68-69).
All this discussion of characters spending time in the water brought some questions to my mind as to the logistics of getting a woman to the water without impropriety or sacrificing her modesty. How did they accomplish this? This was before the first “bathing suits” were advertised in the 1850s, so what did they wear into the water and how did they maintain their modesty?
The first thing I discovered was the use of “bathing machines.” These were like cabanas on wheels. They were “four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy” (Oulton). Women would enter these bathing machines to disrobe down to their very flimsy muslin shifts (the equivalent of a slip) and be dragged/lowered into the sea by either a horse or an attendant referred to as a “bathing-woman” or “dipper”(Hannon 68-69). The bather would then walk down the steps to enter the water. This systems sounds quite civilized and quaint, but what about a woman who became timid or was too intimidated to enter the water on her own. The solution was simple. She was thrown in and forced under the water to prevent her from exposing herself to the eyes others.
Another element I also discovered was that in its infancy, sea-bathing was considered safest in the winter, or in the early morning hours when the “pores were closed.” In November of 1782, the novelist and diarist Fanny Burney wrote, “We rose at six o’clock in the morn and by the pale blink o’ the moon went to the seaside where we had bespoken the bathing-woman 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” (Lane 110). This cold weather bathing would dampen one’s ardor and “minimize one’s faculties” for inappropriate behavior.
However, by 1814 (when Persuasion is set), the season for bathing had shifted from late November to warmer months. (September and October were Austen’s favorite holiday months.) When Anne and her crew arrive in Lyme in November, the town is described as “deserted and melancholy” with the assembly rooms shut down and “the lodgers almost all gone.” It seems that by then, they had enough sense not to be swimming in the dead of winter, and by 1814, there was more to these resort towns than just the bathing. They became social hubs with open air pleasures like walks along the harbor wall, the Cobb. There was plenty to keep the young people occupied outside of the sea-bathing for which Lyme was so well-known (Lane 110).
The advent of the “bathing suit” would not eliminate these “bathing machines” for nearly another hundred years. In the 1890s they were parked on the beaches as changing rooms, and by 1914, most had disappeared altogether.