‘Lyme Regis looks nice, George.’
Now, just how would the Austens know that Lyme Regis ‘looks nice’? What was the equivalent of your friendly Tourist Bureau? How would Lyme Regis be advertised and what would be said about it?
Travel writing was already an established art form in 18th century Britain. It had a long and varied history, from the travel journals of young men who had embarked on the Grand Tour to the journals of middle class travellers in Britain to the growth of guidebooks for such travellers. The rise of nationalism during the period, the improvement in roads and conditions of transport encouraged middle class travellers both to travel in England, and to read about the travels of others. Tours of Britain may not have had the status of a Grand Tour, but they were becoming increasingly popular. It was a domain dominated mostly, but not exclusively, by men. Some women (Celia Fiennes, Mrs Lybbe Powys) left records of their travels and such travels eventually attracted the Englishman (and his family) on holiday.
Along with such travel and journals, guide books flourished. They came in many forms and gave the traveller the ability to form itineraries and calculate distances. They served as guidebooks and travellers’ companions; there were atlases and pocket companions. By the end of the 18th century such itineraries and guide books had been published by Jeffery, Gray, Kitchin, Cary, Paterson and Mavor and were in common use. The growing interest of the middle classes in nationalism and curiosity about their native land, education and, increasingly, leisure, health and social strutting, fostered both the incidence of travel and the significance of travel guides.
Until the late 18th/early 19th century, however, the seaside seems to have been ignored. It doesn’t feature much in the writings of the picturesque traveller and didn’t have the social pull of the inland spas. In The Beauties of England intended as a travelling Pocket Companion (1767), the Advertisement states that the work will
References to the seaside are scant. The description of Lyme Regis, for example, gives a basic description of the Cobb and a brief note about the Duke of Monmouth (p.18). Richard Ayton and William Daniell published, with illustrations, A Voyage Round Great Britain Undertaken in the Year 1813.
In their introduction to Volume I (published 1814), they write:
Gradually, however, particularly as centres such as Bath ceased to be so fashionable, the seaside came into its own. Guidebooks had been including descriptions of seaside watering places enough to tempt the curious traveller or holiday maker.
Notwithstanding Ayton and Daniell’s claim, the Rev Stebbing Shaw (Tour to the West of England, 1788, p.277) writes of Lyme Regis, giving a description of the formation of the Cobb. He pays much more attention to Charmouth, however, writing of its cliffs, especially of the occasion in August 1751 when ‘the cliffs of Charmouth began to smoke, and soon after to burn with a visible but subtle flame’. This incident is referred to in many of the guidebooks – the amateur geologist was fascinated by the composition of those cliffs.
John Aikin’s atlas, England Delineated (for the use of young persons), published in 1790, describes Lyme Regis in this way:
Plagiarism was rampant in the writing of travel journals and guidebooks. Descriptions of Lyme in the early 19th century have a familiar ring. In 1803 ‘the Editor of the Picture of London’ published A Guide to the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places and refers to Lyme as being ‘built on the declivity of a craggy hill’ (p.231). There’s a common ancestor for a description of Lyme Regis somewhere. (And for Charmouth also: the ‘visible but subtle flame’ – or sometimes the ‘subtle but visible flame’ turns up in a number of places.)
This edition does have some interesting comments however. The houses of Lyme include
You may like to consider in which part of the town Captain Harville lived.
However, overall this guidebook presents Lyme as
Lyme is overall, in his judgment, a
Lyme thus stands in distinct contrast to fashionable sea-bathing places such as Weymouth and Brighton.
Other aspects of Lyme receive comment. ‘The river Lyme which rises at the distance of about 2 miles N. passes through the middle of the town on a bed of rocks and empties itself into the sea.’ (Crosby’s Complete Pocket Gazeteer of England and Wales, 1807, p.346). The Cobb, the town buildings – ‘the new buildings in the upper part of the acclivity … have some pretensions to elegance’ (Ayton and Daniell, 1814, Vol 3 p.10). Charmouth with its cliffs which burnt ‘with a subtle but visible flame’ (Vol 3 p.7) is presented in more picturesque terms.
As the 19th Century progressed, details of the history of Lyme Regis are given prominence, and this history includes the relationship that Lyme Regis boasts with Jane Austen. Editions of The Grove in June and July, 1891, include an article by Francis T. Palgrave entitled ‘Miss Austen and Lyme’. In The Monthly Packet, September 1893, John Vaughan writes an article – ‘Jane Austen at Lyme’. He is most struck by ‘a unique passage in her writing’ – the description of Lyme and its environs. Cornhill Magazine (NS 26, 1909) includes an article entitled ‘Jane Austen at Lyme Regis’ and again in 1925 (NS 59), F.D. McKinnon’s ‘Topography and Travel in Jane Austen’s Novels’. Increasingly, people were becoming fascinated by Jane Austen’s sense of place and the significance that she gives to particular places.
Writers include details of the history of Lyme, giving pre-eminence to its connection to Edward I (hence Lyme Regis) and to the failed attempt of the Duke of Monmouth to seize the throne in 1685. The history and construction of the Cobb, the location of the Assembly Rooms (now, it would seem, a car park), the various lodging places, inhabitants of and visitors to Lyme and restrictions on Sunday travel all receive attention.
In 1941, the brother of Emma Austen-Leigh completed her trilogy of booklets with a publication of Jane Austen and Lyme Regis. (She had already published Jane Austen and Steventon and Jane Austen and Bath, but died in 1940.)
The two aspects which concern readers of Austen, of course, are the connections with Persuasion and with Austen herself. Where did Captain Harville live? On which steps did Louisa Musgrove come to grief? And what about that description of Lyme itself?
These are fascinating enough in themselves, but if truth does hold more fascination than fiction, the connection between Lyme Regis and Jane Austen has much with which to tease us. How many times did Jane Austen go to Lyme? Was there an eventually tragic romance?
The Austen family visits to Lyme take place in that notorious period from which Cassandra Austen destroyed so many letters. The drought is actually broken by a letter to Cassandra from Lyme dated Friday, September 14, 1804. The family has been to the South Devon coast before, and possibly stayed in Lyme Regis in 1803. In the 1804 holiday, however, a large family group visited Lyme. At one point, Jane stays in Lyme with her parents, while Cassandra travels on to Weymouth with Henry and Eliza.
The letter contains the witty observations that we are used to from Jane Austen: Weymouth must indeed be ‘altogether a shocking place’ – no ice indeed. Her own ‘little fever and indisposition’ that week was obligatory – ‘it has been all the fashion this week in Lyme’. The ordinary details of the weather, the servants and news gleaned from other quarters are recorded. They bring to life people who could easily have been passed over. Domestic detail is given significance.
The Thursday night Ball at the Assembly Rooms is described:
A visit was made to a Miss Armstrong: ‘Like other young ladies she is considerably genteeler than her parents. Mrs Armstrong sat darning a pair of stockings the whole of my visit’. Miss Armstrong, however, is moderately well approved of.' They walked together for an hour on the Cobb. Austen perceived neither ‘wit nor genius … she has some degree of taste, and her manners are very engaging. She seems to like people rather too easily.’ Shades of Jane Bennet, indeed.
The letter is light-hearted, observant and entertaining. Jane Austen was enjoying herself at Lyme, observing people, enjoying the sea-bathing to the point of unreasonable tiredness and most significantly, taking in the particulars of the physical landscape as carefully as the social landscape.
Descriptions of the landscape are not common in Austen’s novels. They do, however, occur at significant moments: – particularly interesting are the descriptions which reflect the view of Pemberley and its effect on Elizabeth Bennet and the ever-so-English peaceful view Emma overlooks from Donwell Abbey while storm-clouds not seen by her are gathering. The descriptions of both of these places are located in the consciousness of the heroines. Through the details of landscape, the inner lives of both Elizabeth and Emma are examined. No such connection is made for the description of Lyme Regis in Persuasion. These are the reflections, not of Anne Elliot, but of the narrator. Indeed, the sights of Lyme, Charmouth, Up Lyme and Pinny could not have all been experienced by ‘the party from Uppercross’. There would not have been sufficient time. They are the memories of someone who had ‘visited and visited again’. The editing of Persuasion was done during Austen’s final illness. Whether this description would have become a part of Anne Elliot’s inner life is conjecture. What we are left with, instead, is a description somewhat detached from Anne and more closely attached to Austen herself.
That the time spent in Lyme Regis was a profitable one for Jane Austen becomes evident with the publishing of Persuasion. It is a place which begins a healing process in Anne Elliot’s life. The chance encounter with Mr Elliot and the incident at the Cobb are both significant. It is the characteristic comedy of Louisa’s fall which holds our attention of course.
The Cobb, I think, could be a frightening place in bad weather and high seas. The concourse on the Upper Cobb slopes quite steeply towards the sea; the various sets of steps which lead to the Lower Cobb are uncomfortably steep and the steps known as Granny’s Teeth are positively evil. So which set of steps did Louisa insist on being jumped down from? How perfectly horrid if they were Granny’s Teeth – a number of early writers claimed this to be so! But to tell you the truth, you wouldn’t find me walking down them, let alone being ‘jumped’ from them. I don’t believe that Captain Wentworth could have been as persuadable as that. Early comment also suggests that prior to 1817, this part of the Cobb was ‘too rough for a promenade’. Pity. 19th century reconstruction rules out other steps, but sets of steps have always been a part of the Cobb and the landing place beneath them is solid and rough stone. It’s certainly not a good place to have some sense knocked into you.
Granny’s Teeth, a perilous route from the upper to the lower
Equally interesting to me is Austen’s description of Lyme itself. Jane Austen, too, writes that ‘there is nothing to admire in the buildings themselves’ and in her mind it is the ‘principal street’ and not the River Lyme which ‘hurries into the water’. She also moves to a description of Charmouth and Pinny – thankfully she does not tell us of visible but subtle fires. Rather, there are ‘green chasms … romantic rocks … scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth’. Austen’s Lyme experience is not only to be seen, it is to be understood. It provides for her the ‘happiest spot(s) for unwearied contemplation’ and a contemplation not without melancholy.
This move towards Romanticism takes us by surprise, perhaps. In Travel and Writing (translated by J. Powers and K. Lister), Michel Butor explains the ‘kinship between travel and writing’ most strongly felt in the Romantic era. ‘All our writers set out on the road’ he explains. ‘If Romantic travel leads to the composition of a book, this is because in writing a book one is engaged in the act of travelling.’
Lyme Regis may not represent, even in the early 19th century, a journey of many miles, but it is a journey of great significance. I believe that Lyme can also be seen as a place of healing for Jane Austen. The beauty and freedom of the countryside and the quiet walks it offers contrast so starkly with the social affectation, busyness and insincerity of Bath. The hold the seaside town took on her imagination is evident in the clarity of her memories over a decade later and in the imaginative power through which she constructs an important moment in the life of Anne Elliot as this fictional woman moves towards her own healing.
When we stayed in Lyme Regis a year or so ago, I was vastly entertained by the fact that we ‘lodged’ in the Monmouth Hotel. Along with Tennyson, I felt I must energetically proclaim: ‘Don’t talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth. Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell.’ I think, for all of us, Louisa Musgrove’s landing is much more significant and interesting than the Duke of Monmouth’s. We remember Lyme Regis for the stimulus it provided Jane Austen’s lively imagination and great art and for the insights it gives us into the life of Austen herself.
05 July 2003