A few words about Ramsgate …
Let me start with a passage we all know well…
Ramsgate is in Kent, and was a seaside resort and port. It is 78 miles SE of London, 20 miles from Dover, 17 miles from Canterbury and four miles from Margate – which will place it for those who know England (and have a sense of direction. For the rest or us, a sketch map is provided on p 3). It is apparent from Austen’s descriptions that she knew the place, and though no letters from 1803 survive,
it is known that Jane visited Ramsgate in that year, when her brother Frank, later Admiral Francis Austen, was stationed there. On the renewal of war with France after the brief peace, Frank had been appointed to raise and organise a corps of ‘Sea Fencibles’ to defend that strip of the Kentish coast. He subsequently married a local Ramsgate girl, Mary Gibson (Smithers 1981:67; Selwyn 1999: 51).
Ramsgate’s most prominent role in Jane Austen’s fiction is in the passage above. It is the setting in which Wickham’s true character is revealed in Pride and Prejudice both to Elizabeth and to the reader. I have always felt this passage to be very significant. That Darcy would reveal to Elizabeth such an intimate family secret indicates how well he has assessed her character: he knows that he can trust her – and not only with this knowledge. In revealing this episode to Elizabeth, Darcy also reveals himself in a personal and even vulnerable light.
The other mention of Ramsgate in the novels is in Mansfield Park, and I’ll return to that in a moment. Then there are some further mentions of Ramsgate in the Letters, mainly about other people’s journeys to the resort, or visits from people on their way there. For example, Jane Austen writes in September 1813, to Cassandra,
Maggie Lane, in her work Jane Austen’s England, claims (1986:70) that Jane Austen’s references to Ramsgate indicate that she disliked the resort. And it is true that somehow, in that passage just quoted, Ramsgate does appear to reflect, and share in, the unadmirable character of Mrs Bridges – this is the place in which such a feeble creature chooses to languish! In another letter to Cassandra later in that same year, when Jane hears that a friend of her brother Edward was thinking of moving there, she remarks (Letters, p. 239):
Ramsgate is also, in Mansfield Park, where Tom Bertram’s fashionable friends, the Sneyds, are staying, whom he goes to visit. And, once again, Ramsgate is the setting for an occasion of social impropriety. Here Tom Bertram relates his experience when he first happens upon his friends at the resort:
I find this passage very interesting in that Tom, in relating what is really no more than a social gaffe, reveals a much more serious indication of impropriety in that casual line, ‘Mrs Sneyd was surrounded by men’. This is a situation, surely, that no lady would seek! Maggie Lane, however, singles out another line from that passage: ‘when we reached Albion Place they were out; we went after them, and found them on the pier’ and she asserts (1986:70) that in these few words, ‘the flavor of Ramsgate as a smart and heartless place is established’. I must say that I feel this is stretching things a bit – nevertheless, we could surmise that placing Tom Bertram in Ramsgate for his holiday and his associating there with such unselect company is meant to indicate, again, not merely a failing in his character but in that of the resort.
As a seaside resort, Ramsgate always suffered in comparison with Margate, which was closer to London and therefore easier to get to. And, despite the indications in those passages quoted from the novels, Ramsgate was actually regarded as a little more respectable than Margate, boasting, as its 1803 guide reminded visitors, ‘even more select company’ than that other resort - for Margate had ‘a reputation for easy-going gaiety’. The poet Cowper, whose work was a favourite of Jane Austen’s, much preferred Ramsgate, writing once
Although I could find few specific references to just exactly what Ramsgate offered, one can surmise that it had a circulating library, assembly rooms, bracing sea air, and of course bathing for the hardy, even if it apparently lacked the more elaborate amusements of its more popular rival. David Selwyn claims, in Jane Austen & Leisure (1999: 50), that Margate was the first resort to have a pier specifically designed for promenading, opened, he says, in 1815. But we can see in the passage from Mansfield Park that Ramsgate too had its pier – so perhaps in this one instance it had trumped its rival. I came across a wonderful passage about how the sea bathing actually took place at the end of the 18th century, referring, I’m afraid, to Margate, but no doubt reflecting what was standard practice:
This image makes me smile. Less amusing is the idea of bathing at the English seaside at six o’clock in the morning! The passage refers to ‘dippers’ being available: these were robust men and women whose task it was, as the name indicates, to assist the bathers to their refreshment by dipping them into the water. They stood for hours in the sea in sodden clothing in order to perform this service. Some dippers attained a degree of celebrity, like the fellow who went by the name of Old Smoaker, who was dipper to the Prince of Wales (later of course George IV) at Brighton. Old Smoaker took no nonsense from anybody. When the Prince ventured out too far in a rough sea, Old Smoaker ordered him back and when he disobeyed, he seized His Royal Highness by the ear and dragged him back to shallower water, remarking that
But it was the ministrations of a Mrs Nash, operating indeed at Ramsgate, that were actually celebrated in verse:
05 July 2003