A Waterbiography

By Jenny Landreth
Book Review Details
Author: Jenny Landreth
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport
Edition: 2017
Page Details
Section: Book Reviews =>
Subjects: Sport, Women
Posted: Modified:

Swell is both a waterbiography of Jenny Landreth’s personal swimming experiences, and a history of women’s struggle to gain access to indoor baths and outdoor beaches and lakes. She pays tribute to her many “foremothers” who campaigned for women to enjoy freedom of movement and excel through the emancipatory activity of swimming. These included the doughty Elizabeth Eiloart, novelist and representative of the Ladies National Association for the Diffusion of Sanitary Knowledge, who successfully made a bid for (still very limited) access to Marylebone Baths as early as 1858. Acceptance for mixed bathing was to take much longer, with legislation imposing the separation of men and women on beaches in force until 1901, and the segregation of public pools continuing until the 1920s. Other impressive foremothers include the Beckwith sisters, who were to become famous for their public swimming performances in glass tanks and epic endurance swims along the Thames. We know that Agnes and Ethel Beckwith performed in an aquarium in Baldwin Street in Bristol in 1895. Swell is awash with such lively characters and events.

A great set piece is the battle of suffragettes to hold a “Water Carnival” to evade a ban on rallies in Hyde Park. Drawing upon Sylvia Pankhurst’s account and newspaper reports, Landreth recounts that the Serpentines’ boats were confiscated held in a cluster in the middle of the lake to stop the event. Undeterred, “Militants in tights” threw off disguises to reveal costumes beneath and attempted to outflank the oarsmen employed to thwart them. One was successful in reaching the boats and hoisted the suffragette flag to the cheers of onlookers. Not only was this a bid in struggle for suffrage but an rebellious act in itself in claiming access to waters designated for the exclusive use of men.

Despite its more than 300 pages, Swell is a chatty book and a quick read; if it had been half as long, it is likely that it would have been less than half as entertaining. This is thanks to the ironic asides and jibes at the male and female “curmudgeons” who tried to stand in the way of the liberty of the swim. Landreth’s witty text punches home some significant points. With increasing numbers of children failing to learn to swim due to the lack of facilities, twentieth-century progress in safety is sliding. A strength of Swell is the case that shallow appeals for cost effectiveness must not be allowed to over-ride the deep need for accessible social goods that underpin public wellbeing and safety. Landreth is ever alert that the historic anxieties and controversies about women’s place in the waters relating to class, ethnicity, and body image may be reframed but are ongoing.

Order from independent booksellers or borrow from your public library.

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