I picnic lonely as a cloud...

March 7, 2003

William Wordsworth may have invented picnicking as we know it, and in doing so, says Andrew Hubbell, helped to reunite a war-weary England

Some time at the dawn of the 19th century, William and Dorothy Wordsworth hiked up a Cumbrian hillside overlooking Grasmere to enjoy a rustic meal. Most likely, as William, his sister and perhaps a few friends enjoyed the view, they passed around the classic picnic fare: bread, cheese, cold meat, apples and tea.

Over the next ten years, they started organising regular pleasure parties to share their outdoor feasts in a suitably picturesque spot. Like their contemporaries Samuel Coleridge, Walter Scott and William Cobbett, they came to hold the rather eccentric view that a tramp into the country to partake in an afternoon meal was a good idea. Though they did not refer to this meal by its now familiar name, the Wordsworths may well have invented picnicking. And they may have imagined that this could, in a small way, help save English culture from the threats of urban industrialism.

Could Wordsworth really have been the first to enjoy a picnic? Today, this quintessentially English way of outdoor eating is so widely popular that it seems timeless and universal. But, like all things, it had an origin. The question is when? Bound up in the answer may also lie the reasons why it now seems as English as a sandwich and bitter enjoyed beside "A host of dancing Daffodils;/ Along the lake, beneath the trees,/ Ten thousand dancing in the breeze".

There are many different types of picnicking, but the primary form, according to the Oxford English Dictionary , is "a pleasure party including an excursion to some spot in the country where all partake of a repast out of doors". This variety of picnic is relatively simple, just a meal made up of provisions that can be carried by a few people and consumed without much preparation or tableware. It can be enjoyed by anyone with a few hours' leisure and the cash for supplies and transport. If this is how we define the word, then before the 19th century meals eaten outdoors were not picnics at all. In fact, the word had nothing to do with eating al fresco .

The word "picnic" probably came from French and was first used in English by Lord Chesterfield in 1748 in reference to a Berlin dinner party where guests were seated by random selection. By 1800, the word had come to mean a high-fashion entertainment, where each participant brought a dish to share and acted in a theatrical performance or played music. These picnics took place in elegant rooms reserved at a public house in town. They were so popular among London's smart set that the Prince of Wales and his cronies formed the Picnic Club so that they could perform their own plays.

Picnic also had several other meanings, including a "miscellany", as in Charles Dickens' 1841 collection The Pic-Nic Papers , which brought together contributions from a variety of authors.

It was only in the second decade of the 19th century that picnic was used in its modern sense. This shows that people did not technically picnic before 1810-20: but could they picnic before they had a word for what they were doing?

The scholarly answer is, naturally, complicated. The modern practice of picnicking depends on the existence of certain conditions, such as a leisured population, affordable transport, advances in food production, preparation and storage, and a luxury economy. Before the appearance of these things, people ate outdoors, but it was not for the same reason or in the same way as a picnic. Medieval hunting parties, for example, required hundreds of servants to carry, prepare and serve the elaborate feasts partaken by the aristocratic hunters. Travellers ate outdoors regularly, but not by choice - and never if an inn was available. Field labourers also ate outside, but their meals were usually brought to them, and they ate during a work break, not for leisure. The idea of tramping out into the country to eat a meal while enjoying the scenery was neither possible nor desirable for these early al fresco diners.

If I am to go on a picnic, I need types of food that are affordable, easy to prepare and portable. Only since the mid-18th century have advances in agriculture and cookery allowed a majority of people to consume food at some distance from the site of its preparation. I also need to be able to get out to the country quickly and cheaply, which was not possible until industrialisation brought about improved roads and convenient transportation. Finally, I need to have time off from work and a disposable income to enjoy such a frivolous activity as picnicking. With the exception of the very rich, these conditions did not exist until the standardisation of work and the development of a luxury economy, both of which developed in England before the rest of the world.

But in addition to these material conditions, I need to believe that trudging into the country to eat my sandwich and drink my bitter while enjoying the daffodils is a good idea - that it is a pleasurable, worthwhile pursuit.

Wordsworth's romantic poetry is partly responsible for initiating this belief. In 1814, The Excursion , arguably his most popular and influential poem in the 19th century, concludes with a description of a small community taking a pleasure excursion to a remote spot in the country in order to share a meal outdoors. It was written at the close of the Napoleonic wars, which was a time of intense national self-examination and chaotic transition from the agrarian, aristocratic ancien régime to the urban, industrial middle-class state.

Reflecting this, the poem offers a somewhat didactic vision of how the national community can be restored. In dramatised dialogues between allegorical characters, Wordsworth stages the crisis of social fragmentation caused by the French revolution, industrialism, urbanism and secularisation. Then he articulates the solutions that he believes will reunify British society. But the poem does not finish with instructions for how to reforge the community. Instead, it ends with a meal that enables participants to perform ritualised social bonding with each other. We might read this "picnic" as Wordsworth's final offering to his war-torn, disunited country: a new custom for creating the bonds of identity within a community and between the community and the land.

The development of a new form of food sharing is a momentous event in the history of a society because it suggests that people are redefining how they identify themselves as individuals and as a community. Anthropologists have theorised that eating a meal binds "me" to "us" as an identifiable group, separate from those who are not included. Picnicking extends this to the land: "we" are an identifiable community partly because we belong to a food-sharing group practising a distinctive eating ritual, and partly because we practise that ritual in a certain place. This land belongs to us and we to the land.

Within 30 years of the publication of Wordsworth's Excursion , picnicking became a national pastime, chiefly among the urban middle class. This was obviously not the work of one poem. Nevertheless, The Excursion reflects the meaning and purpose that picnicking had from its misty origins in the early 19th century. In this time of massive social transformation, picnicking allowed the emerging bourgeoisie to ritually reaffirm their community identity and their link to the land at a time when both were jeopardised by the new social conditions. Picnicking was not an escape from urban industrial society, but rather one of the new rituals that made this society possible. No one really knows for certain whether Wordsworth really did take the first picnic, but it seems likely that picnicking became a popular English tradition in the 19th century because it was a ritual for ensuring an English identity against the threats of an industrialising world.

J. Andrew Hubbell is assistant professor of English literature at Susquehanna University in the United States. He will present his research at the Nineteenth Century Studies Association annual conference in New Orleans on March 8.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments