Nobody could catch cold by the sea; nobody wanted appetite by the sea; nobody wanted spirits; nobody wanted strength. Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing — fortifying and bracing — seemingly just as was wanted — sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the sea breeze failed, the seabath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, the sea air alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure.” ― Jane Austen, Sanditon
Inquiring readers, I have spent this week at the seaside with my extended family, an unusual occurrence for us, but one that a Regency traveler would have easily understood. The great grandparents are resting in a cool spot, while grandparents and parents have taken the grandchildren and great grandchildren to the beach. A lady’s companion and an auntie (me) are also in attendance, doing what is required to maintain family unity, feed the masses, and provide comfort and mobility for the elders.
Life near the sea shore today is different than depicted in this 19th century image by James Gillray. Or is it really? We still come to the beach to relax and holiday with friends and family, and to enjoy the bracing sea air and the entertainments that are available for the entire family. While modern sea-goers are more scantily dressed, we still enjoy sitting on the beach, swimming in the sea, walking along the seashore, watching ships or dolphins pass by, eating fresh seafood, reading the latest best sellers, and ogling others.
While we no longer swim behind bathing machines that have been pulled into the waters by sturdy horses, we use other equipment to make our swims more enjoyable – floats and surf boards or paddle boards. Like the women in the image, many of us wear hats for protection from the sun and sit under beach umbrellas. We comb the sands for shells and the waters for clams and crabs.
My family frequently vacations at Bethany Beach in Delaware, where my brother owns a vacation house. Each year, new vacation resorts seem to spring up on what once were cornfields and farmlands. If it weren’t for my GPS system, I would get lost, for so many of the landmarks I once knew are disappearing. It was much the same in Jane Austen’s day, when fashionable sea resorts also sprang up to satisfy the masses. London became a convenient day’s ride from the coast as roads improved, and the benefits of fresh air and sea water were appreciated for invalids and healthy alike. In this passage from Sanditon, Mr. Parker’s and Mr. Heywood’s topic of discussion is similar to the one I had with my family as we lamented the increasingly crowded conditions and traffic jams, even as we confessed our addiction to the sea:
“Yes, I have heard of Sanditon,” replied Mr. Heywood. “Every five years, one hears of some new place or other starting up by the sea and growing the fashion. How they can half of them be filled is the wonder! Where people can be found with money and time to go to them! Bad things for a country, sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing, as I daresay you find, Sir.”
“Not at all, Sir, not at all,” cried Mr. Parker eagerly. “Quite the contrary, I assure you. A common idea, but a mistaken one. It may apply to your large, overgrown places like Brighton or Worthing or Eastbourne, but not to a small village like Sanditon, precluded by its size from experiencing any of the veils of civilization; while the growth of the place, the buildings, the nursery grounds, the demand for everything, and the sure resort of the very best company, those regular, steady, private families of thorough gentility and character who are a blessing everywhere, excite the industry of the poor and diffuse comfort and improvement among them of every sort. No, Sir, I assure you, Sanditon is not a place …”
“I do not mean to take exception to any place in particular,” answered Mr. Heywood. “I only think our coast is too full of them altogether. But we had not better try to get you …”
“Our coast is abundant enough. It demands no more. Everybody’s taste and everybody’s finances may be suited. And those good people who are trying to add to the number are, in my opinion, excessively absurd and must soon find themselves the dupes of their own fallacious calculations. Such a place as Sanditon, Sir, I may say, was wanted, was called for. Nature had marked it out , had spoken in most intelligible characters. The finest, purest sea breeze on the coast, acknowledged to be so, excellent bathing, fine hard sand, deep water ten yards from the shore, no mud, no weeds, no slimy rocks. Never was there a place more palpably designed by nature for the resort of the invalid, the very spot that thousands seemed in need of! The most desirable distance from London! One complete, measured mile nearer than Eastbourne, Only conceive, Sir, the advantage of saving a whole mile in a long journey. But Brinshore , Sir, which I daresay you have in your eye, the attempts of two or three speculating people about Brinshore this last year to raise that paltry hamlet, lying as it does between a stagnant march, a bleak moor, and the constant effluvia of a ridge of putrefying seaweed, can end in nothing but their own disappointment. “
Alas, our sojourn at the beach has ended. We must pack up our belongings and return to our daily routines. Would that vacation had lasted a week longer!