Pedestrianism in novels

I am perennially curious about the distances that characters in nineteenth-century novels are happy to walk. Turgenev's Torrents of Spring happens to offer some geographic clues. The hero, Dimitri Pavlovitch Sanin, stays at the White Swan Hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1840, when there was as yet no railroads to carry him home to Russia. The novella fails to locate Sanin's hotel precisely, and Google doesn't yet index fictional travel accommodations as far back as 1840, but on his first night in town, Sanin takes a stroll.

He went in to look at Danneker's Ariadne, which he did not much care for, visited the house of Goethe, of whose works he had, however, only read Werter, and that in the French translation. He walked along the bank of the Maine, and was bored as a well-conducted tourist should be.

Johann Heinrich von Dannecker's statue Ariadne on the Panther is lodged in a museum known as the Liebieghaus, and the house where Goethe was born is also easy to locate, so it's safe to say that Sanin was staying in what is today downtown Frankfurt.

Later in the novel, after Sanin has fallen in love, his beloved orders him to stay away from her for a day. He passes the time with her brother:

After drinking coffee, the two friends set off together—on foot, of course—to Hausen, a little village lying a short distance from Frankfort, and surrounded by woods. The whole chain of the Taunus mountains could be seen clearly from there. The weather was lovely; the sunshine was bright and warm, but not blazing hot . . . The two young people soon got out of the town, and stepped out boldly and gaily along the well-kept road.

The family dog accompanies them; they play leap-frog, run races, sing songs; and they space out the walk by drinking and eating at three inns. They're not, in other words, in any hurry. How far did they go? If you ask Google Maps for walking directions from the Liebieghaus to Goethe's house, and thence to the district of Hausen (which is now part of Frankfurt, and no longer a separate village), the trip is about 4 miles one way, and should take about an hour and twenty minutes on foot. An eight-mile, three-hour round trip is not a terribly taxing walk, though few today would take it uncomplainingly. An equivalent walk would take me from my neighborhood, Park Slope, Brooklyn, to the Soho shopping district in downtown Manhattan.

2 thoughts on “Pedestrianism in novels”

  1. I'm always struck by this in Thomas Hardy's novels as well: characters are always setting off across moor and heath to town, and it's always miles and miles, frequently walked at night.

    One of the pleasures of visiting Dorchester, for a Hardy fan, is taking the country walk from the center of the old market town to the Hardy family cottage three miles away, a walk that a young Thomas made every day to get to the architect's office where he worked.

  2. One of my favorite 19c walking scenes is in chapter 7 of Pride & Prejudice: Elizabeth is trying to visit her ill sister at Netherfield, three miles away from the Bennett house at Longbourn, and "as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative". She shows up at "with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise," and everyone's pretty shocked and disturbed that she walked that far. "Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it."

Comments are closed.