When I am not being Girl with her Head in a Book (and these days, I do not get to be her as often as I would like), I have several other identities and one of those is the Girl who Swims. I love being in the water. Strange though it may sound, for me it feels like flying. So a book on the history of swimming – or ‘wateriography’ as Landreth proudly describes it – was something which immediately caught my attention. I had no idea that the privilege of getting in the pool is only available to me due to the progress made by feminism. Part memoir, part social history, Swell charts how swimming has changed for women over the past two centuries.
Landreth flips back and forth between the social history of swimming and her own personal ‘waterbiography’. The main issue that I found with Swell was that I found the former to be far more interesting than the latter. I think we all have a story about how we learned to swim. A few years ago, I unearthed several of my childhood thank you letters and my desperate battle to not drown (and hopefully graduate to the next swimming class at the end of the term) was a recurring theme. During my teenage years, body image issues drove me away from the pool. The frequency with which I swim is a fairly reliable indicator of my overall happiness. The fact that I managed to keep going right up until four days before my son’s birth felt like a real achievement. My ‘waterbiography’ comes a full circle now as I take him swimming too. Learning to swim is a big deal. But as with so many unifying human experiences, we tend to find our own version to be the most interesting. Landreth seems a really nice person but her ‘waterbiography’ did not grab me.
By contrast though, I found the history of swimming to be truly fascinating. Landreth drops an assortment of wonderful watery trivia from the fact that Roman soldiers were obliged to learn to swim with their armour on to the cleansing rituals carried out by Vikings. But then the focus shifts towards women. Indeed, in ancient mythology, women and the water tended to make for a rather deadly combination. Mermaids and sirens luring decent men to their doom in The Odyssey, with Landreth offering a commentary on why exactly men far away from hearth and home might still be looking for ways to blame women for their situation. Then there is the way that witches were tried by dunking, with neither sinking nor swimming being particularly cheery outcomes for the victims. Women were just better off staying on land.
Yet even that was not simple. Landreth points out that the newspapers of the nineteenth century were littered with reports of drowned women. Just because it was not ladylike for women to be in the water did not mean that it did not happen and with no swimming coaching available, too often tragedy ensued. Even if a woman was determined to learn to swim, who could teach her? Her fellow females were similarly untrained and that kind of interaction with the opposite sex was inappropriate. People were genuinely outraged if a man attempted to give women swimming lessons. Indeed, there were actual laws against it. Propriety required that nothing be put into place to prevent women from drowning. It’s depressing. But not surprising.
Even when sea-bathing became more popularised by Queen Victoria, things were still far from easy. The voluminous costumes were not exactly conducive to easy swimming and there were even suggestions that women swim wearing weights to make sure that their clothes did not ride up. Yes. Women were supposed to swim weighed down. It is at times like this that I think of all the people over the years who have tried to earnestly explain to me why feminism is completely unnecessary. If feminism has achieved nothing else than granting me the right to be in the water in attire that is not likely to cause drowning, I think it was still worthwhile. Interestingly, a number of leading members of the suffrage movement were swimming fans including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Emily Wilding Davison.
Landreth’s enthusiasm about the various ‘swimming pioneers’ is contagious. We share her eye rolls that one of the early female competitive swimmers did a twenty mile swim in a ‘jaunty straw hat’. Landreth expresses her frustration about how the focus on women’s appearances continues in the world of swimming. Even when people advocated swimming as a suitable activity for women, it was generally encouraged through an appeal to personal vanity ‘as if that’s all we care about’. Swimming gives a ‘wonderful complexion’, it is a good way of removing excess fat, it sets the body in good shape for motherhood. What about the rush of being in the water? What about the way you feel after an hour of steady lengths? What about the fact that, when pregnant, going for a swim gives you a breather from the effort of hauling round your unborn child? There is so many more reasons to get in the water than just how it makes you look.
Swell contemplations swimming from every possible angle, from the sartorial (costume change), the political (suffragette swimmers) to the philosophical (why do women swim?) The one area I wish she had tackled was the weird interactions female swimmers so often end up having with men while trying to get on and just swim. Men make a fuss when you overtake them, they do the butterfly stroke with an unnecessary amount of aggression (it really is only men who do this) or else they just express astonishment that you can even complete a length. More than once I have exited the pool only to be stopped by a middle-aged man telling me how well I have just done. Patronising much? I am not the only one who finds this to be an issue. Although there were areas which engaged me more than others, I applaud Landreth’s book as a wonderful hymn to the joys of female swimming. Now I know that the freedom of being in the water as a woman was so hard won, I think I will treasure it all the more. There are few activities that I find more mindful or quite as liberating. In the water, I have wings and I am thankful for the women who went before who made sure that the way was clear.
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Published by Bloomsbury USA on May 1st 2018
Genres: Sports & Recreation, History, Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Swimming & Diving, Women
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