By Bryan Kozlowski
The Jane Austen diet? Yep, you read that correctly (in case you thought you had rabbit-holed down the Regency version of the dark web). But “do not make yourself uneasy,” to quote Mr. Collins. Because not only is the Jane Austen diet very real, it’s been hiding right under our literary noses for over two centuries.
While most of us have focused on the heart of Jane Austen’s novels (the swoony Darcys, the naughty Wickhams) – that is, everything that makes life fun – Austen herself was equally fascinated by the one thing that makes life functional: health.
It’s Jane’s other universally acknowledged truth, incorporated into nearly everything she wrote: “Where health is at stake, nothing else should be considered.” Though few readers notice them, themes of health are solidly woven into her earliest stories, continue throughout Emma and Persuasion, and become center-stage in her last unfinished novel, Sanditon (set, oh-very conspicuously, in a seaside health resort). Ironically, as Austen’s own health was fading, 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 part of Austen’s happily-ever-after package, freely bestowed on her most worthy characters, from Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility 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 Austenworld’s great and good. Even the word “health” itself pops up more than a hundred times in her six classic novels, a suspiciously high frequency for pure romance yarns.
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 culturally Jane-ified since adolescence – let’s just say I’ve watched my fair share of Darcys plunging into ponds – it wasn’t until I neared my 30th birthday when I found myself wobbling under a lack of energy and a few mysterious pounds that I noticed something remarkable: what Jane had to say about health, over 200 years ago – and what modern science says today – is astonishingly similar. The way her healthiest characters eat, exercise, and think about their bodies isn’t just historic filler material for her wider romance novels, but a stand-alone health code with unique patterns and modern parallels for all of us to heed, bonneted or otherwise. The discovery – nay, shock – led me on a personal research project that has forever transformed my image of clever Aunt Jane – from dowdy Hampshire spinster to timeless health guru with a sparkling wit, the sort of personal trainer dreams are made of (yes, my trainer twills a parasol, deal with it). So yes, for lack of a better description, I’ve been on the Jane Austen Diet for over two years now, incorporating her smart wellness strategies into everyday life, finding new and fascinating ways to approach old body problems from one of the smartest gals in history. And here are a few of her “most solid truths,” just a handful of the many health lessons Jane has taught me so far:
1. Look at the Whole “Picture of Health”
Whatever might be said for Austen’s narrow formula for matrimonial bliss (handsome gent + large fortune = yay, success), when it comes to health, Jane was by no means a reductionist. Compared to today’s clinically slim definitions of health – usually deemed satisfactory by a small number on a bathroom scale or a low range 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 still held a refreshingly literal meaning. Health etymologically means “whole,” from 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 (each being an important quantifier of total wellness in Austenworld): their energy level; their relationship with food and exercise; their physical comfort and mental happiness; even the glow of their skin. Austen calls it the whole, bigger “picture of health” in Emma, something that can flourish regardless of body size.
Indeed, rather than promoting a one-size-fits-all ideal of physical beauty, there’s a wide and progressive range of healthy, energetic, beautiful body sizes in Austen’s novels – from “plump” Harriet Smith in Emma to the “squareness” of Mrs. Croft in Persuasion to the “stout” curviness of Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. In short, attractive bodies can come in “every possible variation of form,” says Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, a refreshing acknowledgement which brilliantly anticipates our current understanding of the diversity of genetics.
Such was Austen’s thoughtful rebuttal to the new vogue of reducing health to a number on a scale during the late 18th century – one of the first historic eras to embrace a thinness standard as merciless as our own. At the time, the newfangled fad of weighing oneself (on a large hanging scale, rather humiliatingly) was fueling a dangerous cultural obsession with weight that, paradoxically, sapped the health out of many of Austen’s contemporaries. This was the age when the “tubercular look” was hotly trending. The Georgian equivalent of thinspiration, it glorified sickly-thin physiques that sought to emulate the ravaging side effects of tuberculosis. Marianne Dashwood even gets sucked into the craze in Sense and Sensibility. “Confess, Marianne,” says her cooler headed sister, “is not there something interesting to you in the flushed cheek, hollow eye, and quick pulse of a fever?” Though no one fell harder for the tubercular look than the notorious 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 refutes the cultural fad, as pervasive then as now, 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). Yet what really sends out cultural shocks – even today – is what’s absent in Austen’s novels. No one – I repeat, no one – is described as both unnaturally “thin” (a thinness Regency fashions applauded) and simultaneous “healthy” or even attractive by Austen. In just one of many examples, Lizzie quickly sizes up Ms. de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice (a waiflike character who’d fit any fashion runway today) pronouncing her both “thin” and “sickly” looking, then giggles at Ms. de Bourgh’s slim chances of attracting Mr. Darcy with such an unhealthy figure. Though pronouncements like these tend to stump modern readers, we now know what Austen intuitively grasped, that outward thinness is a terribly unreliable predictor of inner biological health (confirmed by recent body paradoxes, such as TOFI, “thin-outside-fat-inside,” a condition where one’s seemingly thin outward appearance – but low activity level – could be masking dangerous fat built-up around abdominal organs). Because just as Austen’s original readers needed reminding, so do we today, that there is indeed such a thing as being “wretchedly thin,” as Isabella admits in Northanger Abbey, or confusing a dropping body size with better health. As Austen explains elsewhere, we can easily “be screwed out of health and into vanity” by staring too long at a lifeless number between our toes.
2. Don’t Be a Foodie
Despite the ostensibly sparse references to food in her novels, Austen 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 with eerie modern echoes, “I believe no age did ever afford more instances of corpulency than our own.” Austen reflects the concern in her fiction, creating foodies 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 muslin sleeve. Her novels are full of smart mental strategies for how to eat, satisfyingly and sanely, in any age of excess.
One of her smartest 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 arms-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 flavored stew he can’t seem to get enough of.
And yet, 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 and prioritizing it beyond its “proper place” in life. Consider the fate of Dr. Grant in Mansfield Park, 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. Like a Pavlovian response, simply thinking about food at inappropriate times (i.e., even when you’re not hungry) can actually trigger your pancreas to secrete insulin, which pumps powerful hunger signals to your brain, backing you into a psychological corner of cravings nearly impossible to resist. Hence Austen’s 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 grasped what science only started understanding in the 1950s, a biological fact which continues unnoticed by most modern dieters: that is, the only way to stop obsessing about food is to start eating in satisfying ways. It may seem paradoxical, but no one can trick their natural hunger hormones for too long (explaining why low-calorie diets are usually doomed for failure) and Austen certainly makes sure her heroines eat, to eat in ways that are fully, 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 natural food calls of nature, duly promising “that she would take something to eat” “if hungry.”
Yet Austen’s simple reminders to eat 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 which considered the natural act of eating as somehow an unwomanly enterprise. It was one of the first cultural fads Austen lambasted with biting wit in her teenage story, Love and Friendship, and one she continued to rebuttal throughout her literary life: with one frank, biological acknowledgement: “it was first necessary to eat.”
3. Exercise Like an Elizabeth
For anyone who goes all weak and wobbly at the modern concept of working out (me! me!), Austen’s more relaxed exercise philosophy is like manna from Regency heaven. Though that’s not to say she wasn’t a passionate and progressive advocate of exercise, especially for women, cutting-edge for the time. The 18th-century cult of sensibility had done its best to enfeeble the era’s concept of femininity, to spread “an idea of weakness,” as contemporary observers like Edmund Burke wrote. “Women are very sensible of this; for which reason they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness.” And Austen, bless her rebel heart, fought back hard. (“Do not consider me now as an elegant female,” insists Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.) But Austen rebelled in ways you might not expect. Jane was never the Regency equivalent of a modern gym rat, sadistically pushing us on another sweaty jog around the shrubbery. Rather, she embraced something far more thoughtful, a philosophy we would today call intuitive exercise. A world away from the leaden weights and agonized grunts of modern gyms, intuitive exercise is the refreshing 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.
If you’ve ever struggled to maintain a New Year’s resolution to exercise more (then quit after the first few weeks) you’ll appreciate the sound logic of Austen’s observation in Mansfield Park: “Nothing ever fatigues me but doing what I do not like.” Most of us simply don’t enjoy what exercise has become, and since our bodies are experts at avoiding pain and discomfort whenever possible, modern gyms have some of the highest dropout rates on the planet.
Seen in this light, it’s interesting to note that only enjoyable, pleasure-producing words like “comfortable,” “delightful” and even “snug” define the daily exercises 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 in 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 characters feel fit and fully satisfied by simply enjoying “the felicities of rapid motion” (then taking a comfortable breather whenever necessary).
The idea might seem laughably inadequate today, conditioned as we are to view exercise as that sweaty thing we do between this-and-that o’clock (while sitting down for the rest of the day). But science has recently caught up with Austen, rediscovering the truth behind the Regency medical idea that the human body is indeed a sort of machina carnis, 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 has the same body benefits as running (lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and your risk of diabetes) and has the lowest dropout rate of any physical activity, according to the American Heart Association. It certainly is the exercise of choice in Austenworld, where characters walk milks, 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 could often walk up to seven miles a day just by visiting nearby friends and relations. By contrast, half of modern Brits walk less than a mile a day, according to Cancer Research UK. Yet Austen’s walking prescriptions match health studies of groups who have stuck closest to a Regency walking lifestyle (such as some Amish communities in Canada) who, despite a diet rich in hearty farm far, have far lower rates of obesity than the average population, thanks in large part to them standing by the same conviction embraced by Anne Elliot in Persuasion – “I walk: I prefer walking.”
4. 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 – Jane’s insistence that a naturally healthy diet requires a daily dose of nature itself. Getting outside, soaking up the refracted benefits of 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 more fresh country air for her health). Other characters who stay cooped up inside, by contrast, ultimately suffer mysterious slumps to their overall well-being. Many readers today still find Austen’s nature prescriptions somewhat of a romantic mystery (little wonder, as a healthy diet in today’s parlance, is usually confined to the right ways to eat and exercise), 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.
Beginning with the now famous biophilia hypothesis in the 1980s (which theorizes that humans, being a part of nature, need routine physical contacts with nature in order to thrive), 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, Jane 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, newly released by Turner. 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.
Practical and logical advise.
Jean | Delightful Repast says
Bryan and Jonathan, this is such a fabulous post! Pinning and tweeting. Jane was ahead of her time in so many ways.
What a great article! Thanks for this, you’ve inspired me to pick up the book.