There are more methods than one of giving novices confidence in the water actually in use in the swimming schools of Paris. It is true, women and children are suspended, as V. describes them, by a rope from the ceiling and a belt round the waist, but there is a gentler method for the same object which is exceedingly amusing to foreigners who first witness it. The novice is still hooked by the belt, but to a rod and line held by the instructor, who plays with his heavy fish as occasion requires — now giving him entire freedom to swim away if he can, and now preventing him from sinking or tumbling about, by a sustained pull which keeps him on the surface. Boys and men may be seen floundering or floating at the end of their line, or striking out, so that the teacher has to follow along the margin, like an angler pulled over the rocks by a stout salmon. At this stage the pole and line are pretty nearly done with, and the learner is able to keep within snuff of the air.
As for the quality of the water in those baths on the Seine, it is not commendable, certainly; but the most disagreeable objects are kept out of sight by a netting carried down outside the baths to the bottom. Many a pupil may feel grateful for that netting, especially on occasion of his first successful attempt to dive, when he has not quite acquired the art of coming up again. The stream flows strongly through the bath; and it is well for him if he finds himself brought up against the netting, instead of rolled off towards the sea.
As for the purity and fragrance of the water, what does the spectacle of the neighbouring washerwomen lead one to expect? There they are, leaning over the gunwale, all round a large boat, rinsing and beating the linen, close by the outlet of a sewer full of stinking mud. The baths are not so bad as this, and the swimmers have the comfort of knowing that their bodies will come out of cleaner water than their linen.
As to the dress of the women, their bathing dress is in one piece from the throat to the ankles, without the petticoat, and this is the simple convenient dress used in Germany. In Paris, where the instructors are men, the short full petticoat is buttoned upon the waist-belt. Thus the train of practical swimmers, described by V., resembles a shoal of Naiads in incipient crinoline.
I am informed that there are now Englishwomen enough learning to swim to have given occasion to an established method of teaching novices at the baths in St. Marylebone, where one of the three baths is appropriated to women, for one day in every week, from April to October. The pupil wears an India-rubber waist-belt, inflated completely on the first occasion, and less and less inflated as the novice learns to support herself in the water. She walks into the water with her hands placed, as she will be instructed, in readiness for striking out as soon as afloat. When the water reaches the bottom of the belt, she throws herself gently forward on the surface, practising the instructions of her teacher as to the action.
It is said that, by the help of this belt, and a knowledge of what the action of the limbs ought to be, women and children can learn to swim without a teacher. However this may be, there is usually, we may hope, some relative who can swim, and who can give courage and confidence by his or her presence, as well as instruction. I should not like any sister or daughter of mine to go alone to any retired place to try to swim, confiding in the belt.
There was a time when people confided in corks, till some deaths occurred by the corks slipping or in some way failing. The best way in this, as in every other art, is, in my opinion, to get well taught in the first instance, at establishments properly fitted for the purpose. A due demand will presently create a supply of such schools. The well-taught may then teach others, in ponds, rivers, the sea, or where they like. A single death by drowning of a woman trying to swim would stop the process all over England at this stage of the enterprise. Let us have everything safe at first — plenty of good help within reach of beginners, and the next generation will take care of themselves.