Vacationing on the Florida Gulf Coast, the spray of waves and foam at my feet, the salt and sand coating everything, the little sand pipers scurrying away from the water, and the slower way of life, brings to mind stories and memoirs of the seashore (which seemed to be the general term for it in the 1800’s) in classic literature.
A visit to the ocean must have required much more effort in a time when carriages, wagons, steamships, and trains were the main modes of travel.
Yet, “to the seashore” many did go in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and from what I have read, primarily for the following reasons: 1) To have a “holiday” 2) to treat tuberculosis or other lung diseases 3) to be inspired (to write or paint or express themselves artistically) and 4) to live permanently in another country.
As these things often go, I planned to write this as a single article, but after researching and thinking, I quickly realized this would need to be at least a two-, if not a three-part article. Here, I will look at the first reason proper English citizens flocked to the seashore:
To Have a Holiday
A “holiday” in classic literature often points to a one- to three-month stay at a seaside resort or a country house. This likely helped to make the longer and arduous trip more worthwhile.
The ultimate book, for me, about having a holiday is The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. It all begins with a little classifieds ad in a newspaper offering a castle “for rent” in the Italian riviera. Four women agree to share the costs of renting the place for the summer.
Mrs. Wilkins, most of all, is transformed by the new environment. This meek wife (and mother), with seemingly mild depression, now blossoms:
“Her face was bathed in light. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair… It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy…”
Von Arnim has a way of expressing what we introverts need and how a place such as the seashore can inspire us. She understands that we crave and need space to think and roam, nature to inspire and give color, creative outlets to give us purpose, and time to make all of the above happen.
Lady Caroline seems to represent best the introvert’s need for space and time alone. She thinks to herself:
“The garden on the top of the wall was a delicious garden, but its situation made it insecure and exposed to interruptions. At any moment the others might come and want to use it…It was essential to her comfort that she should be able to be apart, left alone, not talked to.”
I turn next to a short story, A Drama on the Seashore, by Honore de Balzac, not necessarily for its iconic place in literature, but because it gives us the male point of view in taking a holiday, one often missing, as the husbands and sons and uncles typically stay in the cities to continue conducting business and making money. Sometimes, in stories, they appear on weekends, or sometimes they are old enough or rich enough that they go along, but rarely are they the protagonist in these scenarios.
In de Balzac’s story, the narrator stares at the sea:
“Standing on a rock, some hundred fathoms above the ocean, the waves of which were breaking on the reef below, I surveyed my future, filling it with books, as an engineer or builder traces on vacant ground a palace or a fort…ah! Who would not have floated on the future as I did!”
De Balzac uses masculine imagery to show us how the sea inspires his main character to look optimistically to the future and causes him to feel as if nothing is unattainable.
English travelers sometimes stayed closer to home, with plenty of coastline from which to choose.
According to Richard Jeffries, Brighton (located on the southern shores) was a common destination in England for “sea bathers” to play on the shore, wade, and swim. He describes a mid-day scene in his book The Open Air, published in 1885. Girls wore “bathing dresses,” in hues of pinks, lavenders, and creams (only their ankles were bared to the sun), while older men loitered and younger men goggled:
“Humming and strumming, and singing and smoking, splashing, and sparkling; a buzz of voices and booming of sea! If they could only be happy like this always!”
Shown above are sea bathing “machines,” used to transport ladies into the ocean and give them privacy. See this article at janeaustensworld to learn more about this English convention used by early sea-goers.
Another popular destination for sea lovers, Margate (a suburb of Dover) drew vacationers as far back as the late 1700’s. In a children’s book At the Seaside, by Mrs. Warner-Sleigh, a boy and girl pack up for a month-long stay at Margate as a reward for good grades at the end of the school year.
Sand-castle-building, shelling, wading, and riding in a goat-pulled cart are activities enjoyed by the children at Margate.
Northern cities in England were thronged by working-class visitors, despite the poor weather and great waves of the region’s beaches.
In his book Afoot in England, W. H. Hudson describes a visit to the area of Norfolk in August. It must have been a particularly cold August:
“The wind blew with a fury from the sea; it was hard to walk against it. The people in hundreds waited in their dull apartments for a lull, and when it came, and when it came they poured out like hungry sheep from the fold, or like children from a school…then in a little while, a new menacing blackness would come up out of the sea, and by and by a fresh storm of wind would send people scuttling back into shelter” (Afoot in England 59).
Hudson describes how this goes on “day after day,” as the throngs go back and forth from their rented rooms to the beach. He seems to have some insight as to the penchant we have for the sea, even if it is a violent, dark sea:
“In such weather, especially on the naked desolate coast, exposed to the fury of the winds, one marvels at our modern craze for the sea; not merely to come and gaze upon and listen to it, to renew our youth in its salt, exhilarating waters and to lie in delicious idleness…but to be always…close to it” (60).
Hudson suggests that this need for the sea is a result of living in “dirty, overcrowded cities.”
Near to the public resort is a sea village patronized by the affluent, and Hudson notes that they are “without their lords,” with a ratio of 3 to 1 of women to men (not counting children), something I have noticed over and over in extant texts from classic literature.
Just like today, the coasts up and down England, north and south, filled with sea towns, resorts, spas, and sleepy villages awoke as visitors came to “have a holiday.”