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The joy of running, 1860s
I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run.
Just a short trip to the past this week, as I’m away for a break. Last week I dipped into the journals of Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), where she wrote about the genesis and writing of Little Women. I was interested to note that on one day in 1868, she wrote, “I am so full of my work, I can’t stop to eat or sleep, or for anything but a daily run.”
Running for exercise, leisure and indeed mindfulness is commonplace today, but certainly less so 150 years ago, especially for women. But Louisa baked it into her life, and I suspect she’d have been a regular Strava user were she alive today. So this week I’ve dipped again into her journal, just to pull out a few little references to her running and the part in played in her life, from inspiration to solace, and indeed enabling a spiritual response to nature which is perhaps unsurprising given her Transcendentalist upbringing. The entries are again from the 1899 edition of her autobiographical writings edited by Ednah D. Cheney.1
[This first text is from Louisa’s ‘Sketch of childhood’ – it’s not clear when this was written, though I’d guess in the 1880s.]
Active exercise was my delight, from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop round the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening.
I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy.
My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild, learning of Nature what no books can teach…
I remember running over the hills just at dawn one summer morning, and pausing to rest in the silent woods, saw, through an arch of trees, the sun rise over river, hill, and wide green meadows as I never saw it before.
Something born of the lovely hour, a happy mood, and the unfolding aspirations of a child’s soul seemed to bring me very near to God…
Thursday 30th October, 1845
[Louisa and her sisters were encouraged from an early age to keep a journal – here she is only 13 years old.]
I had an early run in the woods before the dew was off the grass. The moss was like velvet, and as I ran under the arches of yellow and red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful. I stopped at the end of the walk and saw the sunshine out over the wide “Virginia meadows.”
It seemed like going through a dark life or grave into heaven beyond. A very strange and solemn feeling came over me as I stood there, with no sound but the rustle of the pines, no one near me, and the sun so glorious, as for me alone. It seemed as if I felt God as I never did before, and I prayed in my heart that I might keep that happy sense of nearness all my life.
[Here she is visiting Walpole, New Hampshire.]
Up at five, and had a lovely run in the ravine, seeing the woods wake. Planned a little tale which ought to be fresh and true, as it came at that hour and place, —“King Goldenrod.”
[During the American Civil War, Louisa worked for a few weeks as a nurse at the Union Hospital in Georgetown, Washington DC – her work was curtailed when she herself became ill with typhoid.]
My work is changed to night watching, or half night and half day, from twelve to twelve. I like it, as it leaves me time for a morning run, which is what need to keep well; for bad air, food, and water, work and watching, are getting to be too much for me. I trot up and down the streets in all directions, sometimes to the Heights, then half way to Washington, again to the hill, over which the long trains of army wagons are constantly vanishing and ambulances appearing. That way the fighting lies, and I long to follow.
[Sadly the mercury treatment for that bout of typhoid seems to have influenced her poor health for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, Louisa’s much briefer journals from the 1880s – when she was in her 50s – still regularly mention her daily runs. She died of a stroke in 1855.]