AUTHOR AND JANE AUSTEN LITERACY FOUNDATION AMBASSADOR, JANE ODIWE, SHARES HER INSIGHT INTO LYME REGIS AND THE ROLE IT PLAYS IN PERSUASION.
I’ve been visiting Lyme, or Lyme Regis as it’s known, ever since I was a little girl. I still get excited when turning the curve of the road in Broad Street and the first flash of the sea is seen, sparkling with bright pennies on a sunny day, along with the sound of gulls mewing and circling overhead.
As you drive into the town along the road where the houses and shops tumble down to the sea, so brilliantly described by Jane Austen as ‘the principal street almost hurrying into the water’, I am rather inclined to think Jane loved Lyme also, especially when we recall the scenes in her wonderful novel, Persuasion. We feel something of the Musgrove sisters’ excitement when we hear Jane’s voice saying, ‘The young people were all wild to see Lyme’. Taking a stroll along the promenade, which in Jane’s day was known as ‘The Walk’, with sets of steps down to the beach that Jane might have descended herself, we see Anne Elliot in our mind’s eye delighted by all she sees as we enjoy the same never ending pleasures.
‘… the prospect of spending future summers by the sea or in Wales is very delightful.’ Jane Austen wrote these words in a letter to her sister in 1801 (3rd Jan), as she contemplated their removal from Steventon to Bath. Living in the West Country would make visiting the seaside resorts along the Dorset and Devon coastlines a greater possibility. Of the places the family eventually visited, it seems that Lyme held a special place in Jane’s heart.
Jane’s own delight in Lyme seems to spring from her enjoyment of the landscape itself, rather than the entertainments that drew the early crowds. The Austens visited in November 1803 and again in 1804. When Jane was writing Persuasion she remembered these occasions, setting her own November scenes in the town:
The rooms were shut up, the lodgers almost all gone, scarcely any family but of the residents left; and as there is nothing to admire in the buildings themselves, the remarkable situation of the town, the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which in the season is animated with bathing-machines and company; the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger's eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better. (Persuasion, ch. 11)
We see Lyme through Persuasion’s heroine, Anne Elliot, but we also feel we are witnessing Jane’s thoughts when she mentions the beauties of scenic Lyme. She goes on to describe Charmouth:
...with its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest-trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again to make the worth of Lyme understood. (Persuasion, ch. 11)
Is there another location in all of Jane Austen’s work so lovingly described?
Seaside resorts had first become fashionable, like the spa towns, as places to go where the sea air and sea-bathing were seen and ‘sold’ as being good for one’s health. Drinking seawater was encouraged as much as being dipped in it, and it didn’t matter what time of year you indulged the fancy. In fact, Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza de Feuillide was told her son would have more benefit from one month’s bathing in February than six at any other. The popularity of sea-bathing gave rise to a new profession with some of the town’s fishermen and their families turning to bathing visitors for a living. Ladies were bathed by ‘dippers’, and gentlemen by ‘bathers’. Jane would have been taken out into the sea by a horse-drawn bathing machine, and from there, after dressing in a chemise or linen shift she would have descended the steps to be vigorously plunged in and out of the water by the bather or dipper. Jane clearly enjoyed a spot of sea-bathing in September 1804: The bathing was so delightful this morning and Molly so pressing me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid (sic) in rather too long (14th Sept, 1804).
As the resorts developed they became centres of entertainment, and every seaside town boasted assembly rooms, circulating libraries, donkey rides and excursions. The assembly rooms in Lyme were demolished in the 1920s to make way for a car park, but we have a description by Constance Hill in her book, Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends. The book was first published in 1901 after she and her sister Ellen, who illustrated the book, made a tour of all the places of interest connected with Jane Austen.
The Assembly Rooms used formerly to be thrown open to company during the season twice a week, namely on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “The ball last night was pleasant,” Jane writes on September 14, 1804, “but not full for Thursday. My father stayed contentedly till half-past nine (we went a little after eight), and then walked home with James and a lanthorn; though I believe the lanthorn was not lit as the moon was up; but sometimes the lanthorn may be a great convenience to him.”
The ball-room is little changed since Miss Austen danced in it that September evening nearly a hundred years ago. It has lost its three glass chandeliers which used to hang from the arched ceiling, but these may still be seen in a private house in the neighbourhood. The orchestra consisted, we are told, of three violins and a violoncello. We visited the room by day-light, and felt almost as if it were afloat, for nothing but blue sea and sky was to be seen from its many windows. From the wide recessed window at the end, however, we got a glimpse of the sands and of the harbour and Cobb beyond (Hill, Jane Austen: Her Homes & Friends, ch. 13)
The differing sets of characters in Persuasion are contrasted greatly in each pleasure resort. Bath is full of characters like the vain and snobbish Sir Walter Elliot and his daughter Elizabeth who seek only the company of those they consider to be their equals like Lady Dalrymple, or the social climbing Mrs Clay. In Lyme we meet Captain Wentworth’s unpretentious and hard-working Naval friends like the Harvilles, and Captain Benwick. They have little to offer in riches and comforts but are welcoming, hospitable and generous. It is here in Lyme that Anne realises, to her great regret, that the Harvilles and their circle would have been her friends if she had not ended her engagement to Captain Wentworth.
It’s at Lyme where Anne is once again described as being pretty - an effect of the fine wind which has restored her bloom. As she climbs up the steps from the beach, a young man (who later turns out to be William Elliot) regards her with great admiration. It’s a delightful moment because Captain Wentworth sees it happening too, and from this point he looks at Anne with renewed interest, recognising at last the girl he once knew. Coupled with the attentions from Captain Benwick with whom she discusses poetry and literature, Wentworth is forced to acknowledge Anne’s worth once again.
Lyme is also where one of Jane’s most dramatic scenes takes place, when Louisa Musgrove jumps from the Cobb wall. Louisa is behaving rather childishly, wanting to be jumped down the steps, and not content with Captain Wentworth having obliged her the first time, she wants to do it all over again. It’s an awful scene when Louisa, who is determined to do what she wants, falls and cracks her head upon the pavement of the lower Cobb. It’s dreadful for Louisa, but for our heroine, it’s a chance to see her shine as she comes into her own, advising the shocked party what to do and attending to Louisa expertly, which also helps to cement her excellent qualities in the eyes of Captain Wentworth.
The beauty of visiting Lyme today is that it is largely unspoiled, and so it’s not too difficult to imagine what it would have looked like in Jane Austen’s day. It’s still possible to take a dip in the sea or a walk on the Cobb, though I wouldn’t recommend jumping down any of the steps - it’s very scary from the top! You can see the exterior of one of the houses, Pyne House on Broad Street, where it’s thought the Austens stayed, and see the wooden posting box in Coombe Street where Jane posted her letters. The excellent Philpot Museum in the town has some objects which once belonged to Jane, given by local resident and Austen descendant Diana Shervington. There is also a garden dedicated to Jane’s memory, and I’m sure whether there or on a sunny spot on the beach, you cannot find a more perfect place to sit in ‘unwearied contemplation’ or to read your favourite copy of Persuasion.
© Jane Odiwe, Author and Jane Austen Literacy Foundation Ambassador
Austen, J. (1817). Persuasion. Revised ed. 2006 by Longman; Austen-Leigh, J. E. (1869). A Memoir of Jane Austen. Reissued 2009 by Cambridge University Press; Austen-Leigh, R. A. & Austen-Leigh, W. (1913). Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, A Family Record. Smith, Elder & Co.; Hill, C. (1901). Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends. The Bodley Head; Selwyn, D. (1998). Jane Austen and Leisure. Continnuum; Wilke, S. (2014). A Visitor's Guide to Jane Austen's England. Pen & Sword Books Ltd.
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