Was Jane Austen a health and wellness guru?
In Austen's novels, there is no perfect body type.
Jane Austen, the novelist known for Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and other classics on British life, may also have been a health and wellness coach for her times.
In his book The Jane Austen Diet, due out in March, author Bryan Kozlowski looks at the connections between the latest discoveries in the science of eating, exercise, and wellness and the somewhat similar holistic philosophies that Austen wrote about 200 years ago – only with "more elegance and wit."
Far from that of a dry, scholarly treatise, Kozlowski's approach is jargon-free, filled with memorable references from Austen's books, and sprinkled with Regency-era recipes.
Don't let the book title fool you, Kozlowski said, in a phone interview from his Florida home. The word diet is used here, as Austen would have done, to relate not only to food but to a way of life in general, he said.
It was serendipity that Austen's novels and the latest health and wellness books found their way onto the nightstand of Kozlowski, a classically trained chef, who was working in the New York City test kitchen of Saveur magazine at the time.
Kozlowski hadn't read Austen since he was younger, but after seeing the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, he was again hooked. He was also about to turn 30, and was putting on a few pounds. The exercise books were the antidote for his fitness crisis, and Austen's novels were his moral support, Kozlowski said.
That is when he noticed the similarities.
"At first, I thought it was a coincidence," Kozlowski said. "Jane had an ingenious way of taking a few steps back and seeing health, better than we do today."
In Austen's novels, there is no perfect body type, he said.
To quote the character Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, "Healthy, happy, handsome bodies come in 'every possible variation of form,'" Kozlowski wrote.
But thin bodies, such as those Photoshopped in today's magazines, did not always equate with healthy bodies in the author's world, Kozlowski found.
Miss de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice was repeatedly called "thin" and "sickly." Miss Bates in Emma had "grown thin" and was "looking very poorly." And in Persuasion, "Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early. … She was faded and thin," Kozlowski quotes Austen.
Austen's relationship with sugar, which she kept locked up, was in keeping with the times. It was expensive and treated almost like a luxury spice, Kozlowski said.
He calculated Austen's annual consumption to be about 20 pounds, in contrast to the average American today, who uses about 90 pounds of the sweetener. The amount Austen used then would fall right in line with what the World Health Organization and American Heart Association recommend today, he said.
At the same time, Austen's overarching message on sweets was one of moderation, Kozlowski said.
"She never wanted to deprive people of the pleasures of life," he said.
Exercise was another big theme in the "Austenworld," Kozlowski said. But, the novelist had a very relaxed attitude to working out, which is a bit of a mental flip to how exercise is viewed today, he said.
Austen's characters walked everywhere and there was usually a social component involved. That philosophy is in line with the American Heart Association, which calls walking one of the most pleasurable ways to exercise, Kozlowski said.
"There was no duty or obligation," Kozlowski said. "It was purely a matter of pleasure in her novels."
Of course, where her characters walked mattered, he said.
"Happiness being only complete in Austenworld if it comes with an attached garden to stroll through," wrote Kozlowski. "An entire 'park' with its own river and '10 miles' of winding wooded walks, even better."
Michael Gamer, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed that Austen was a big proponent of healthy living.
"She is a big fan of the outdoors," said Gamer, who has written about Austen. That may have had something to do with her upbringing in the countryside as well as the time period she lived in, he said.
The author's early years were spent in rural Steventon, Hampshire, before the family moved to the city of Bath. In the countryside there was well water, clean air, fresh foods, and a healthier way of living than in the cities, which at the time lacked modern sewer systems, he said.
Austen's characters often reflected her attitudes, he said.
"Emma Woodhouse is the picture of health and vibrancy," Gamer said of the protagonist in Emma.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is seen as delicate, nervous, and prone to headaches and depression. Horse riding was deemed essential for keeping her on an even keel, said Gamer.
"If she doesn't ride daily, her health suffers very quickly," he said.
Kozlowski said he has taken Austen's love of soaking up fresh air and natural light to heart in his own health routine.
Many of her characters, which Kozlowski describes as "morning people gone mad," were constantly walking, getting fresh air, and embracing nature.
"We often forget how crucial a role nature plays in our health," said Kozlowski, who goes outside first thing every morning and goes from "groggy to instantly wide awake and ready to start the day."
"There is something incredibly powerful about letting the optical receptors get that natural light," he said.
There are a number of Regency-era recipes in the book that Kozlowski included so readers could get an appreciation of the times. He adapted the ingredients – such as those used in summer spruce beer – for more modern tastes and availability and so the recipes could be made in the "crunch of modern-day life," he said.
Summer Spruce Beer
Makes one cup of concentrated syrup.
"My Knightley had been telling him something about brewing spruce beer … and Mr. Elton's seeming resolved to learn to like it too." – Emma
The piney flavor of Regency spruce beer can be replicated today by substituting rosemary and lemon for the original spruce leaves. Added to sparkling mineral water, the fragrant syrup makes a refreshing alternative to soda.
2 sprigs fresh rosemary (each sprig about five inches long)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Sparkling mineral water
Using a vegetable peeler, shave off long strips of zest from the entire lemon (avoiding the bitter white pith and saving the whole lemon to juice later). Put the lemon peel in a small saucepan with the rosemary and water. Bring the liquid to a full boil. Boil vigorously for one minute then remove from the heat.
Add the sugar and ginger to the hot liquid, stirring to dissolve. Set aside until completely cool, leaving the rosemary and lemon peel to infuse the syrup.
When cool, remove and discard the rosemary and lemon peel. Juice the leftover lemon, adding about three tablespoons of fresh lemon juice to the syrup. Stir to combine.
Transfer the syrup to a pourable container of your choice. Refrigerate or use immediately, adding one to two tablespoons of the concentrated syrup per cup of cool, sparkling mineral water. The syrup also adds a delightful zing to tea, either hot or iced.
"We are brewing spruce beer again …" – Austen's letters