After a performance of the chamber opera Hell’s Angels, featuring nudity and profanity, a lady violinist left the theatre saying, “I think I’ll go home now to read some Jane Austen.”
From 1809 until 1817 Jane Austen lived in a tiny village in Hampshire, where her brother James owned Chawton House. He offered Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother a cottage – now a museum. It was here that she wrote her best known novels, including Persuasion, whose characters visit Lyme Regis (granted a Royal Charter by Edward I in 1284).
King Edward used Lyme in his wars against the French, beginning the port’s longstanding historical connection with the navy. The title “Regis” recognizes this royal connection. Centuries later, Lyme Regis had become a fashionable summer resort. Jane Austen visited it with her family in the summer of 1804, remaining there with her parents while Cassandra and brother Henry moved on to nearby Weymouth.
Jane wrote letters to Cassandra describing what she had seen and done in the town: walking on the Cobb, dancing in the Assembly Rooms, bathing (from a bathing machine) and arguing with her landlord over the cost of a broken jug.
Austen remembered that visit when she came to write her last novel, Persuasion, published in 1818 after her death. Austen’s settings are usually fictitious, but Bath and Lyme are exceptions. Bath represents society and fashion and, to some extent, extravagance. Lyme is rustic, natural and unspoilt.
The following passage from Volume 1 Chapter 11 of Persuasion describes the visit to Lyme of Captain Wentworth’s party, including Austen’s gentlest and most plausible “heroine”, Anne Elliott – possible modelled on Jane Austen herself.
“They were come too late in the year for any amusement or variety which Lyme, as a public place, might offer. 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.”
The Cobb – familiar from the film of John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman – is an old stone pier believed to date from the time of Edward I. The origin of the name is unknown, although it may derive from “sea-cob” (a black-backed gull) or from “coble” a flat-bottomed skiff. The eastern section ends in the Victoria Pier, so-called after Princess (later Queen) Victoria landed there with her mother in 1833.
Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817. This year’s bicentenary is a reminder of her legacy. As Amanda Vickery, professor of early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London, wrote in “200 years on, why Jane Austen’s lovers find new reasons for their passion” (The Observer, 18 December 2011):
“Many different Jane Austens have been celebrated since 1811 – sweet Aunt Jane in her rose-wreathed cottage, sardonic critic, master stylist, mother of the novel, feminist rebel and queen of romantic comedy. I think the key to her adaptability is her restraint. Austen leaves room for the reader’s intelligence and fantasies, which has the uncanny effect of allowing each new generation to see themselves reflected back from her pages. And in another 200 years, I am sure readers still will.”