The original article was originally published here. MSC has no link to the books in the article.
TREADING water, sinking like a stone or riding the wave: there is something about water that makes it a good metaphor for life. That may be one reason why so many find solace in swimming when life’s seas get rough, and it goes some way towards explaining why “waterbiographies” and “swimoirs”, in which people tackle icy lakes, race in rivers and overcome oceans while reflecting on their lives, have recently become so popular.
These books reflect a trend, particularly strong in Britain, where swimming in pools is declining, but more and more folk are opting for open water. “Wild swimming” seems to be especially popular among women. Jenny Landreth writes about swimming for the Guardian and recently published a guide to the best dipping spots in London. Her new book, “Swell”, interweaves her own story with a history of female pioneers, “swimming suffragettes” who accomplished remarkable feats and paved the way for future generations.
“Looking at the amount of restrictions and myths and baggage” of the past, she writes, it “is amazing … that we have ever got in the water at all.” Ms Landreth calls out the old wives’ tales with their misogynistic undercurrents: mermaids were believed to be evil temptresses calling sailors to a watery grave; in medieval times women were deemed witches if they could float, let alone swim.
Notions of modesty restricted women in the Victorian era. But they still swam. The “bathing machine”, a “glorified garden shed on wheels”, was rolled down to the seashore so women would not be seen in swimwear. In 1892 “The Gentlewoman’s Book of Sport” described a woman swimming in a corset, heavy dress, boots, hat, gloves and carrying an umbrella.
Eventually, swimming became freer. Mixed bathing was permitted on British beaches in 1901. Women won the right to swim in public pools, learned to swim properly, created appropriate swimwear and, in time, even competed against men. The first woman to cross the English Channel was Gertrude Ederle in 1926. She beat the record by almost two hours and her father rewarded her with a red sports car.
For Ms Landreth the right to swim is intimately bound up with the fight for equality, not just in gender but also in class. She is at her best writing about swimmers past, and has done a thorough job of interviewing other swimmers. It takes a more poetic approach, though, to get to the heart of the matter. That something is in abundance in a lyrical and moving memoir from a new debut author, Ruth Fitzmaurice. “I Found My Tribe” is an account of Ms Fitzmaurice’s life when she found herself nursing her husband who had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, at the same time as bringing up five young children. She describes days that became a dance of carers and nurses, the distance that grew between her and her husband—each trapped in their own worlds—and the depression that came over her.
What saves Ms Fitzmaurice is the “tragic wives’ swimming club”, which was formed with a few friends whose experiences had made them “sorely alive to the beauty and sadness of this life”. Reclaiming lore of old, she sees them as “mermaid goddesses” who take moonlit swims and use the cold to come back to life. Their birth scars and broken veins “bask in the moonlight” and they “dive deep with hammering hearts”, leaping and mainlining “right into the pulse of nature”. Ms Fitzmaurice puts the passion into Ms Landreth’s points about why women swim: “Like the rolling of the waves, the thrill of the dive, the rush of the cold … this is as free as we can all possibly be.”