Andrea/Cara here, Where I live, the month of August is the epitome of the slow-paced languor of summer. It’s usually hot, which inspires outdoor thoughts of cool water, refreshing breezes and leafy shade, not to speak of lazy movements . . . or sitting and moving as little as possible! Which got me to thinking about Regency leisure pursuits.
Along with hunting and riding, fly-fishing is one of the most popular pasttimes depicted in paintings of the era. And when I decided to do a little research into the subject, I quickly discovered that Great Britain has a long been a leader in developing the lore, the traditions and innovations of the sport.
Are you ready to be hooked?
There are references to fishing with flies during the 13th century in England, but The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, an essay published in 1486 within The Boke of Saint Albans (written by a woman, Dame Julian Berners, who is thought to have been the prioress of the St. Mary of Sopwell) is considered the first written work devoted to the sport. In it are instructions for different types of rods, lines and the making of flies for the different seasons.
One of the first “literary” treatises on fly fishing was written in 1613 by John Dennys—whose fellow fishing aficionados are said to have included William Shakespeare. The Secrets of Angling waxes poetic on the art of the sport, and features such advice as “"The trout gives the most gentlemanly and readiest sport of all, if you fish with an artificial fly, a line twice your rod's length of three hairs' thickness... and if you have learnt the cast of the fly."
One of the most famous books on fishing is The Compleat Angler, which to this day is considered a classic on the art and allure of fly-fishing. (According to some sources, it’s the fourth most reprinted book in the English language, behind only the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and the Book of Common Prayer.) Written by Izaak Walton in 1653, it not only offers instruction but also celebrates the poetry—both physical and spiritual—embodied by the sport. The book did much to inspire the British love of rambling the riverbanks throughout the country and testing the skill of the fisherman against the wiles of their finned prey.
By Regency times, most gentlemen grew up learning how to cast a fly as well as hunt and ride. For many, fishing was—unlike the other two sports—a perfect pastime for relaxation and contemplation. It required peace and quiet—and patience. There was much time for thinking, which appealed to intellectuals. (And as one can see by the image of the fishing scholar, alcohol and sleeping were also a big part of fishing's allure!) For example, Humphry Davy, the famous scientist and head of the Royal Institution during the early 1800s, was an avid fisherman and traveled around England and Ireland to fish certain stretches of rivers (and on one of his trips he snagged heiress and reeled her in as his wife!)
Speaking of reels, fishing equipment in the Regency had become rather sophisticated. Rods were made of a strong flexible wood—the most popular choices were ash, hickory and lancewood, though exotic bamboo from Britain’s far-flung trading empire was beginning to show up. The standard reel was a Nottingham reel, which basically let the current pull out the line. (Geared winding reels didn’t become as popular as they did across the Pond.) Fishing line was made from a mixture of silk and horsehair, though the most expensive quality was fashioned entirely from silk. The hook, however, had changed little since the 1655, when Charles Kirby invented a improved version that featured a small barb at the end, to help prevent a fish from wiggling free. (It’s still the most common design used today.)
“The conversation soon turned upon fishing, and she heard Mr. Darcy invite him, with the greatest civility, to fish there as often as he chose while he continued in the neighbourhood, offering at the same time to supply him with fishing tackle, and pointing out those parts of the stream where there was usually most sport.”
Fishing appears often in literature, but Regency fans will of course remember that the sport play a key role in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Gardiner was very fond of fishing, and Darcy’s invitation to come fish the river running through Pemberley helped bring him and Lizzy to their HEA.
I have a few avid fly fishermen friends and they explain the allure by saying the matching their casting rhythm to the flow of the river is very Zen-like, and thus the sport is incredibly relaxing. (They don’t care about catching fish!) I find the same relaxation in walking a golf course, and have other friends who love sailing. What about you? Do you have a favorite recreational activity for relaxing? (all images courtesy of the British Art Center at Yale)