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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

 

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

Jane Austen in Lyme Regis: Reliving Persuasion, Part 1

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ May 29, 2019

Of all the sites on our Jane-Austen-led itinerary, Lyme Regis is the one I have most looked forward to visiting. Probably because Persuasion is my favourite Austen novel and Lyme is the site of the book’s pivotal scene. (Although the town received its first royal charter, allowing it to use the title Regis, in the 13th century, it was simply called Lyme in Jane’s day.)

Lyme was part of the general seashore development along the south coast of England in the late 18th century in response to the craze for healthful sea-bathing. Lyme, like all the fashionable resorts springing up, had her visionary developer. Thomas Hollis, whose home was near Lyme, bought up run-down property which he demolished and rebuilt with improved views of the sea. His vision included a promenade and Assembly Rooms—which weren’t completed until after his death. Did Jane perhaps have Thomas Hollis in mind when she chose the name Mr. Hollis for the first husband of the enterprising developer Lady Denham in Sanditon?

We are told only that "Her first husband had been a Mr. Hollis, a man of considerable property in the country, of which a large share of the parish of Sanditon, with manor and mansion house, made a part." A small miniature of him hangs among others in the sitting room, but we are not told whether or not he might have looked like Thomas Hollis pictured below. 

My bus lumbered through the narrow streets of Uplyme. Would this have been the same road the Uppercross party followed in Persuasion? The steep, winding road was lined with stone walls and stucco buildings. Daffodils punctuated every green space, along with an occasional magnolia tree.

A few years before the Austen’s visit, Fanny Burney recorded that “the descent down to Lime [sic] is uncommonly steep”. As a matter of fact, the road is so steep that, until the first coach road was completed in 1759 Lyme couldn’t be entered by a wheeled vehicle.

Entering the town at the top of the hill, I was reminded of the description in Persuasion when the Uppercross party saw: “the remarkable situation of the town, the principal street almost hurrying into the water. . .”

I was thrilled to be staying in No. 1 Pyne Place, the very cottage the Austens are believed to have rented in 1804 when they visited Lyme with Jane’s brother Henry and his wife Eliza.  

Pyne House

Pyne House Plaque

Later, Cassandra moved on to Weymouth with Henry’s family while Mr. and Mrs. Austen and Jane moved to less expensive quarters on the hillside above the Cobb, probably near the present site of the Jane Austen Memorial Garden.

That house was described by Constance Hill, in 1902 as long and rambling, "a queer, ramshackle cottage with low rooms and small windows and a staircase so narrow and steep and twisted and withal dark, that it was a source of danger to get up and down it. Then there were two ground floors, one in its proper place, containing kitchen, entrance, and dining-room, and the other at the top of the house, containing the bedrooms and back door, which latter opened on to the green hill behind. . .” Which its location on a steep hillside must have made necessary.

Since the sisters were apart, we have the gift of Jane’s letters to Casandra. “We are quite settled in our lodgings…& everything goes on in the usual order. The servants behave very well & make no difficulties, tho’ nothing certainly can exceed the inconvenience of the Offices, except the general Dirtiness of the House & furniture, & all its inhabitances.” Jane reported that the weather was “just what we could wish,” which means that it was dry. Jane took over Cassandra’s usual job of overseeing the housekeeping, including keeping an eye out to “detect dirt in the Water-decanter” and giving the Cook, who apparently had an upset stomach, a cathartic.

Fortunately, I found the Pyne House lodging clean and convenient. The stone floor of the wood-paneled entry was surely the original. I smiled to think I was likely walking on the actual floor Jane trod.

entry to Pyne House

I chose the front bedroom on the first floor. Might this have been Jane’s room? She would surely have appreciated the view of the Cobb which was to play such a central part in Persuasion when she wrote it eleven years later.

view from Pyne House

First on my agenda was visiting the Cobb. Just like the party in Persuasion who, “After securing accommodations, and ordering a dinner at one of the inns, the next thing to be done was unquestionably to walk directly down to the sea.”

Jane describes it in Persuasion: “[T]he 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;”

 The experience of the Uppercross party was based on Jane’s own time there. She reported to Cassandra that she and a visiting guest, “walked together for an hour on the Cobb.”

The Cobb, Lyme Regis

The Cobb is a great, 2-level stone structure curving into the sea to provide a breakwater and form an artificial harbor for Lyme. Sometimes described as looking like a giant sea serpent, the Cobb dates back to the 14th century and has been destroyed by storms and rebuilt many times throughout history.

The Cobb

As every Janeite the world over knows, Louisa Musgrove’s stubborn insistence on being jumped down from the steps and her disastrous fall provide the major turning point in Persuasion. But the debate continues over which steps. The more romantically inclined will choose Granny’s Teeth. But would a party of ladies guided by the reliable Captain Wentworth have been likely to descend anything so treacherous?

Granny's Teeth

Some have chosen the ‘gin shop’ steps which ascend both sides of the alcove that served as a powder magazine built into the Cobb. The gin was apparently the local nickname for the crane which moved the barrels of gunpowder, and the name was a local pun on the drink. A fascinating, if rather alarming bit of history.

the gin shop stairs

Surely the better candidate for the site of Louisa Musgrove’s downfall is the single set of steps nearest the end of the Cobb. Although the Austen expert Maggie Lane believes this may have been farther out on the end than the ladies could have walked, given the high wind that drove the party to the lower level of the Cobb that day. Lane also advises investigators to remember that because of the rebuilding through the years, nothing on the Cobb is exactly as Austen would have known it.

Stairs the cobb

A chance encounter with a fellow walker on the Cobb brought another aspect of Lyme Regis into perspective for me. After obligingly taking my photo,

Donna on Cobb

Moira commented, “Everyone exclaims over the view, but they don’t see what’s under their feet.” She pointed to the myriad fossils comprising the enormous blocks of Portland Roach stone from which the Cobb is constructed.

“People are walking on history and they don’t realize it.” She pointed out the belemite (like a carrot) and ammonite (like a French horn) fossils.

fossils in the Cobb

All a reminder that this entire stretch of the shore is known as “The Jurassic Coast” where Mary Anning discovered the first complete Icthyosaur skeleton in 1811 when she was only 12 years old. It is fun to think that Jane, on one of her rambles along the cliff walk, could have glimpsed the precocious Mary and her brother at their fossil hunting.

plesiosaurus skeleton

When I was there a film crew was at work on a soon-to-be-released movie “Ammonite” about Mary Anning, starring Kate Winslet. This was a source of much contention among the locals because of the apocryphal lesbian storyline. The crew had set up in the car park just below Pyne House—in the car park on the former site of the now-demolished Assembly rooms.

movie set for Ammonite

car park Lyme Regis

Assemblies were held every Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Although built on a very cramped site, the Rooms were said to be modeled on those at Bath. Besides a large, two-story ballroom with three chandeliers and an orchestra of three violins and violoncello, there were card and billiards rooms where Jane reported to Cassandra that Mrs. Austen played Commerce and Mr. Austen probably read the newspapers as London and county papers were available for reading, as well as tea and coffee for one shilling per person. Sedan chairs were available for the more fashionable patrons, but we know that Mr. Austen walked home by the light of the moon. Their servant James accompanied him with a ‘lanthorn’ which remained unlit because of the moonlight.

Assmebly Rooms

In typical Jane style she wrote to Cassandra, “I danced with Mr Crawford— & had I chosen to stay longer might have danced with Mr Granville. . .—or with  a new, odd-looking Man who had been eyeing me for some time, & at last without any introduction asked me if I meant to dance again.—I think he must be Irish by his ease, & because I imagine him to belong to. . . bold, queerlooking people just fit to be Quality at Lyme.” 

Next week our Jane Austen’s Seashore Tour will continue with part 2 of Jane Austen in Lyme Regis. We'll have a glimpse of nude sea-bathing, take tea at Captain Harville’s cottage, visit an historic bookshop, eat dinner in Captain Wentworth’s inn, and peek at the parish church. All before I have my own Louisa Musgrove style disaster.

We began this series with an overview, then visited Teignmouth,  Dawlish and Sidmouth. Please return each week as we continue with: Lyme Regis, part 2, Southampton, Portsmouth, Bognor Regis, Worthing, Brighton, Ramsgate, and finally, move inland to Chawton.

map of tour

These will provide background for my next Elizabeth and Richard literary suspense novel as another in the series that includes A Jane Austen Encounter, danger and bloodshed in Jane Austen's homes and A Most Singular Venture, murder in Jane Austen's London.

Jane Austen books

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

Read More: Jane Austen Seashore Tour

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