I feel unreservedly great towards most of the women I encountered in the course of writing Swell, A Waterbiography, a book which splashes about in the history of women’s swimming. I hugely admired them, was nourished by their attitudes and energy, and did so much air-punching at their achievements I practically put my literary back out. There are excellent women young and old in the book, women of great privilege and none. And then there’s Mrs Cecil Samuda, for whom my feelings are a bit more complicated.
Maybe the formality of her name kept me at arms length; it obviously belongs in most part to her husband. I can’t refer to her just as Samuda, that’s a little too prep school for my taste. We know she started as Miss Markham, and we know the forenames of her sisters, because as her bridesmaids they were in newspaper reports of her wedding (which sounds extraordinary, by the way. She really knew how to rock an outfit). But her own first name is nowhere found. So Mrs Samuda it is.
In 1892, Mrs Samuda wrote the swimming chapter of the Gentlewoman’s Book of Sport, with the aim of leading ‘timid women’ by example. These are no ordinary examples; she records how one of her sisters, for a bet, swam a quarter of a mile in the sea “not only wearing all the undergarments of a lady including corsets, but also attired in a heavy Fishwife serge dress” – which sounds like something in the A/W Toast catalogue – “boots, hat and gloves, and carrying in one hand a huge umbrella opened” – that’s a nice, complicating touch – “and in the other a large bouquet of somewhat gaudy flowers”. Miss Markham won her bet, arriving on the beach “amidst the cheers of an admiring crowd”. And of course, having both hands full, she’d have swum the quarter mile using only her legs. I can almost feel the effort required, as someone who can barely manage 50meters of a kicking drill.
... she records how one of her sisters, for a bet, swam a quarter of a mile in the sea “not only wearing all the undergarments of a lady including corsets, but also attired in a heavy Fishwife serge dress”
It’s when you learn where Mrs Samuda swam that my feelings got a bit chewy. ‘There are not many lady swimmers who bathe in open fresh water, privacy being somewhat difficult to obtain’ the papers reported ‘but one of the most famous is Mrs Cecil Samuda who bathes all through the summer in a large deep lake in the gardens of her residence’. This lake apparently measured 175 yards by 50, was over 7 feet deep and had a diving board. She had her own open water swimming venue! I admit it – it’s jealousy colouring my reaction to her. I am pure green.
At the end of every summer, Mrs Samuda and friends held a water gala in this lake, and the programme of events sounds … creative. It included races – short, long, on your back, on your front, one-handed, legs only, some diving and floating, then a grand ‘Water Carnival’ of all the fun stuff. It started with a swim from the middle of the lake dressed in ‘any old clothes which [swimmers] could collect’. Then competitors were ‘at liberty to exhibit as many water-feats as they choose’ such as, Mrs Samuda suggested, ‘writing a letter, placing it in an envelope, addressing it and returning with it safely to shore’. Now, I like a talent show, and Mrs Samuda assures us this was ‘most amusing’, but I’m not entirely convinced. Other water feats she lists include ‘Catherine Wheels in the water’ ‘undressing under water’ and ‘smoking under water’, a trick I’m sad to say has completely fallen out of favour.
There’s lots to admire in Mrs Samuda. Women were really only intended to be ornamental and she did fulfil her end of that bargain, while also, as a formidable swimmer, challenging perceptions of what women were capable of. And she liked to have fun, even if ‘swimming with mail’ isn’t your idea of it. But it seems she was not a sympathetic soul. Some women, she wrote, simply should not learn to swim at all. The ‘naturally delicate girls suffering from “anaemia” or any sort of palpitations of the heart … it is just so much time wasted. They derive little pleasure or benefit from the practice’ she said, ‘while they are a constant source of annoyance and anxiety to their friends’. With that, I got a bit of a pang, for the women she had no patience for. The constant sources of annoyance, the ones who ‘wasted her time’. And suddenly she felt a bit of a bully. A Mean Girl. And bosh, I was back in my school PE days, always the last one picked, always tripping and fumbling, all uncoordinated big feet and hands. I could imagine Mrs Samuda exactly like my old PE teacher, pipping an aggressive whistle and yelling at me as I struggled along. ‘Oh for goodness sake, Landreth. KEEP UP’.
Some women, she wrote, simply should not learn to swim at all. The ‘naturally delicate girls suffering from “anaemia” or any sort of palpitations of the heart … it is just so much time wasted.
And then I think of my own swimming community. How we’re really not divided into good and bad swimmers, rich or poor; how women and men are pretty damn equal, and nobody is a waste of time. How (to the Cheers theme tune) everyone knows my first name. So thanks for the reminder, Mrs Samuda. I wouldn’t mind a swimming lake in my back garden but on balance, I’ll stick with what I’ve got.
Swell, A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth is published by Bloomsbury on May 4th.
To order a copy, click here