During the pandemic, the promenade made a comeback.
Maybe you saw more couples walking through the park during lockdown and it reminded you of the romantic strolls in the Netflix drama “Bridgerton,” or a scene from a Jane Austen novel. The walk was a courtship staple in a time of strict social mores, a way to have private conversations, but still be visible, says Kate Frank, who is doing her PhD on women walking in 18th-century literature.
When she used to talk about her research — the idea of walking as social space — she’d get strange looks. Not anymore.
“More people really understand it now,” she says.
When COVID began to spread in Canada, proximity to others became risky, and dating was a challenge. Restaurants and bars shuttered. Restrictions came and went.
“It sort of thrust on many people that kind of claustrophobic world that Jane Austen’s women live in,” says Robert Morrison, author of “The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern.”
Instead of the rolling hills of rural England, couples had the crowded sidewalks of downtown, the conservation areas of the GTA, and the peace and quiet of the suburbs.
Before the pandemic, Frank Csath might have suggested a movie, dancing or laser tag for a first date. But those options weren’t available when he and Kari Woodley began their relationship in 2020.
“In online dating, you kind of go to your stereotypical tropes,” he says. “People overlook the walk.”
For a couple getting to know each other outside of the Zoom screen, it was one of the few options that felt safe. So they walked. On tree-lined paths, through towns and cities, in sun and rain and snow.
“The walk led to me meeting the person I asked to marry me and have a kid with,” he says. “The walk — there’s something classy retro about it.”
Like most lockdown relationships, theirs grew virtually at first. Csath would play the guitar in his North York condo, Woodley would sing in her Markham home. By the time they were ready to meet in person in the summer of 2020, they felt like they knew each other.
Woodley suggested they go to the Milne Dam conservation park in Markham. They walked near a stream teeming with tadpoles, and eventually sat on a bench that overlooked the water. That bench is where they had their first kiss on a rainy summer day, where Csath asked her to be his girlfriend as the leaves were burnt orange, where he told her he loved her when the trees were bare.
Csath, a kindergarten teacher, had been very lonely before he met Woodley. After years of waiting, he moved out of his parents’ home and into his new condo, as politicians told everybody to stay home and socially distance. The months dragged by, and when restrictions eased, he jumped back into online dating. It was a way to “rage against” the isolation, he says. He knew that restrictions made sense, but “our mental health needs to be taken care of too.” Dating Woodley was his connection to the world.
Within a month, he says, they had talked it over and felt comfortable with each other in their respective homes. But they didn’t meet each other’s families for a while. They didn’t do indoor dates. They ate on patios and they walked everywhere: Penetanguishene in October, the Toronto Zoo that same fall. In the winter, Csath trudged through the snow on frozen Lake Simcoe to draw a heart with his footsteps. He’d walked with plenty of friends and family but this was different. “It’s the two of us and it’s romantic,” he says.
They welcomed their son, Emery, in late 2021, and Csath proposed just after the countdown on New Year’s Day 2022. They were indoors with family. He thought about asking Woodley to marry him at the bench, but it was too cold, and frankly, too predictable.
“He’s like, ‘It’s not our bench but let’s start this year off right,” Woodley says.
When Karleigh Cerra and Brendon Farnum matched in the spring of 2020, they recognized each other from a Newmarket restaurant where they both cooked bacon, eggs and crepes a few years earlier. Their first date was in June, and Ontario was still in a state of emergency. They ate takeout chicken wings in a parked car. They talked for hours and listened to music in a parking lot, and only ate one chicken wing because they both felt weird eating something so messy in front of each other.
They had debated whether they should meet in person. Both were very cautious and careful about restrictions. Farnum has an autoimmune disorder and it can affect how much he can walk. So while they spent most of their time outside, they didn’t have much of the promenade experience. But they had the familial proximity prevalent in Jane Austen novels, when young women did not live independently.
Cerra had moved back in with her parents in Keswick, north of Toronto. When it came time for their second date, she asked them how they’d feel about Farnum coming indoors. They weren’t comfortable with it. She understood.
So for the next two months, they dated in the backyard. They sat on sleeping bags and watched movies on a laptop, with a long extension cord snaking inside.
From the house, there was a big window that overlooked their budding romance. “They would make a point of looking at us and then raise their hand and shut the blinds,” Cerra says of her parents. “They really made a whole show. We’re closing the curtains, you guys have fun, no problem.”
When case numbers were lower, Farnum started coming inside for snacks and bathroom breaks while wearing a mask. He didn’t take it personally. It was a “brand new pandemic,” he says. “They’re very sweet.” As things gradually improved that summer, Cerra and Farnum started having indoor dates — a restaurant that August, her sister’s wedding the same month.
They moved in together last June. They say the pandemic has made their relationship stronger. They focus on what they can control, and don’t dwell on what they missed. Except Ikea.
“I feel that one of like the biggest bonding methods is going shopping at Ikea in person,” Farnum says. “So now that we have it back it’s really helped us build our relationship.”
Michael Grundland, 30, didn’t have a lot of hope in early 2020. He hadn’t found any meaningful relationships in his 20s, and didn’t expect the pandemic would help.
But he decided to try. He matched with Rodney online: he was a solid, good person who liked “Survivor” just as much as he did. Dating in the pandemic was a different headspace. It didn’t feel casual. They had more patience and commitment from the start. “I can’t help but think that it was not a coincidence that I finally found love in the pandemic,” he says.
After a few virtual dates playing board games and watching movies, they went for a walk together.
It was a Sunday in May, the first really beautiful day of the year, after two months of strict lockdown and sadness. They left the sidewalk for a forest path that led to a wide-open green space in the middle of High Park. They laid out a picnic blanket and played bocce ball. That summer, they walked all over the west end and North York, spending entire afternoons in parks. Aside from their condos, there weren’t many indoor places they ventured. Cottages, patios, walks. “A lot of our relationship has been outside,” he says.
Grundland is a psychiatry resident, and it has been demoralizing to work in health care these days.
“There’s so much stress and burnout in the past two years,” he says, “and for me, the fact that I’ve found this relationship and love and this meaningful partnership, it makes everything worth it in a way.”
We romanticize Austen’s walks — but they weren’t for everyone
Jane Austen’s heroines loved a good walk. But was walking a widespread courtship ritual beyond the well-heeled classes?
Austen’s universe is a “pretty rarefied one,” says author and professor Robert Morrison. The majority of people in the Regency era did not have the same access to nature or leisure time.
“When they go for a walk it’s because they need to fetch water from a well, or because they’re doing manual labour,” says Morrison, British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University in England.
Austen’s characters are upper-middle-class and the gentry. It is a very white world, although many Black people were living in England at the time, says Jacqueline L. Scott, who is exploring how to make the outdoors a more welcoming space for Black people for her PhD at the University of Toronto OISE. Scott loves to walk. It’s where she feels her best and can clear her head.
“It’s a way of reminding you that no matter what your problems are, you’re still alive,” she says.
She grew up in rural England and has walked the same landscapes as famous poets like William Wordsworth, looking for the missing Black history.
Scott mentions Dido Elizabeth Belle, who came of age in Georgian England. Her mother was a young Black woman, her father a white Royal Naval officer, her great-uncle the Chief Lord Justice of England. A 2013 film about her life shows her walking with men in the same way Austen’s characters do. But she was an aristocrat, Scott says.
At that time, some Black people were enslaved, others were free, and some were in between, she says.
What did walking mean to them? The existing records — the gravestones, the baptismal records, the census records — can’t say.
“Toni Morrison said the facts of Black lives might just be a name and a date,” she says. “But you have to use your imagination to invent a reality.”
Katie Daubs is a Star reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs