A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XIII." by Constance Hill
From: Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923) by Constance Hill.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 133] 

CHAPTER XIII

LYME

"This other Eden, demi-paradise,            
This fortress built by Nature for herself."

IN the Autumn of 1804 Miss Jane Austen, together with her father and mother, spent some weeks at Lyme Regis. As they drove to that place from Bath, they would probably go by way of Shepton Mallet, Somerton and Crewkerne, and, leaving Axminster a couple of miles to their right, would join the Lyme Road where an old inn called "The Hunter's Lodge" stands. Then passing through the "cheerful village of Uplyme" they would descend the long hill towards Lyme itself, and pass down its quaint main street, which seems to be "almost hurrying into the water" as Miss Austen says. Half way down the street the chaise would turn into a lane, which, running westward, finally makes a precipitous descent to the harbour. At the end of the little parade or "walk" nearest to the harbour on a grassy hillside there stands a long, rambling, white cottage, [Page 134]  and it is in this cottage that tradition declares the Austens to have stayed.

Strangely enough, two members of the family, visiting Lyme in later years to trace the places of which Miss Austen speaks, lodged in this very house without being aware of its associations. One of these, Miss Lefroy, writes, "Leaving the town on our left we followed a road which took us down the steepest and stoniest pitch we had as yet encountered, at the bottom of which we turned into a little bit of street, so narrow that there was only just room for the carriage to pass, out of which we descended on the Esplanade and drew up at our lodgings. And such lodgings! Surely no other town but Lyme could have supplied them. They were very clean, and the cooking and attendance were good; but the house was nothing but 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. The drawing-room which, by comparison with the rest, might be called spacious, was on the middle floor, and from thence we had a charming view of [Page 135]  the sea and harbour and Cobb on one side, and of the pretty chain of eastern cliffs, on the other."

We can imagine Miss Jane Austen's delight in this prospect, of which she afterwards wrote, "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."

We have entered the doors of the "queer ramshackle cottage," now known as "Mrs. Dean's house," have climbed its "steep, narrow, twisted staircase," and stood in its quaint parlour, whose windows command the view described, seen across a little terrace garden, gay with flowers.

The evidence that Jane Austen stayed in this house stands on good authority. It was in 1827, just ten years after her death, that a certain Captain Boteler, R. N., came to Lyme to take the command of the Coastguard Service in that district. By that time Miss Austen's name as a writer had become well known and the people of Lyme were proud of the fact that she had visited their town. On the captain's arrival this cottage was pointed out to him, as the house in which she [Page 136]  had lodged. Captain Boteler died some years ago, but members of his family still reside in Lyme.


HOUSE IN WHICH JANE AUSTEN LODGED

Just below "Mrs. Dean's house" and on the further side of the "walk," there is a white cottage perched on the corner of a sea-wall that juts into [Page 137]  the water and seems to lift it and its tiny garden out of the waves. Seagulls hover about the very windows of "Bay Cottage." Behind it stretches the harbour, while, near at hand, are the remains of an old pier. "In a small house near the foot of a pier of unknown date," writes the author of "Persuasion," "were the Harvilles settled." This passage clearly points to Bay Cottage. It lies nearer than any other house to the foot of the old pier in question, and it is, besides, the only house in sheltered Lyme which is so much exposed to weather as to make Captain Harville's "contrivances against the winter storms" necessary. From its windows, alone, moreover, could Captain Benwick have been seen, after Louisa Musgrove's fall on the Cobb, "flying past the house" and towards the town for a surgeon. From "Mrs. Dean's house" Miss Austen would look directly down upon Bay Cottage, and, we can well believe, would be struck by its quaint sea-girt situation and would be likely to choose it for the abode of the good captain and his family.

It was in Bay Cottage that we ourselves lodged during our sojourn in Lyme. Its resemblance to the description of Captain Harville's house had struck us at once, but we soon found that our landlady looked upon the whole matter as settled beyond a doubt. She talked of the Harvilles, the Musgroves, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth [Page 138]  as if they had been in her house but the season before, and pointing to a bedroom on the first floor, exclaimed eagerly, "That is the room where the poor young lady was nursed." And,


CAPTAIN HARVILLE'S HOUSE

again, showing us a cheerful room on the top storey over-looking the sea and the fishing-boats, remarked, "That was the children's nursery!"

In our little parlour, with its projecting bay window, we fancied the Uppercross party assembled [Page 139]  when they called on the Harvilles for the first time and "found rooms so small as none but those who invite from the heart could think capable of accommodating so many," and thought of Anne noticing "the ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville to turn the actual space to the best possible account, to supply the deficiencies of lodging-house furniture, and defend the windows and doors against the winter storms to be expected." In the evenings we used to fancy the Captain, having finished his more active employments for the time being, sitting down "to his large fishing-net in one corner of the room." What a kindly nature has Miss Austen there described! No wonder that "Anne thought she left great happiness behind her when she quitted the house."

The Cobb lies on the further side of the harbour. It is a massive, semi-circular stone pier upon which are two broad causeways, on different levels, forming the Upper and the Lower Cobb. It has undergone many a repair since Miss Austen walked upon it in 1804 but, nevertheless, a considerable part of the old masonry still exists, which is marked by rough-hewn stones placed vertically. Against some of this old masonry, and about half way along the Cobb, are to be seen the identical "steep flight of steps" where the memorable scene of the accident in "Persuasion" is laid. It [Page 140]  is said that when Tennyson visited Lyme his friends were anxious to point out to him the reputed landing-place of the Duke of Monmouth, "Tennyson waxed indignant, 'Don't talk to me,' he said, 'of the Duke of Monmouth. Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell!'"[1]

The steps in question are formed of rough blocks of stone which project, like the teeth of a rake, from the wall behind. We can ourselves bear witness to the "hardness of the pavement" below, which Captain Wentworth feared would cause "too great a jar" when he urged the young lady to desist from the fatal leap.

Looking westward from the Cobb the rocky coast leading to Pinny can be seen - Pinny, of which Jane Austen has written in such admiration of 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 in the far-famed Isle of Wight."

Could Miss Austen see Pinny, as it now is, she would think it even more "wonderful and lovely" than it was in her day. For since then another great landslip has occurred. "It took place," we [Page 141]  are told, "on Christmas Day 1839, when over forty acres of cultivated land slowly and silently slipped away to a far lower level. Two cottages were bodily removed and deposited with shattered walls to a considerable distance below the cliffs, while an orchard, which still continues to bear fruit, was transplanted as it stood."[1]

Looking eastward from the Cobb, the eye dwells upon the "very beautiful line of cliffs stretching to the east of the town." In a valley between the hills lies Charmouth. Miss Austen speaks of "its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country and 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."

In going to Charmouth, Miss Austen would take a pathway on the top of the Church Cliffs, which was the fashionable promenade in her day, but which has long since been washed away by the sea. Even the old church itself is now almost undermined by the waves.

The Parade or "Walk," as it used to be called, runs along the foot of a green hill which "skirts the pleasant little bay" of Lyme from the town to the harbour. At the town end of this "Walk" some thatched cottages nestle under the sheltering hill, and just beyond them stand the Assembly [Page 142]  Rooms perched upon the eastern promontory of the bay. The scene in its principal features is the same as in Miss Austen's day; a sea wall being the only marked addition. A stretch of firm sands, lying between the points of the bay, forms a primitive highway for the heavily-laden waggons bearing freight from the harbour to the town. The sight of the horses up to their flanks in a flowing tide is what Miss Austen must often have looked upon.

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, "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."

In former times there were no lamps on the "Walk," so that as Mr. Austen would have to traverse the whole length of it in returning home "a lanthorn or dark nights" would certainly "be a great convenience."

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 [Page 143]  glass chandeliers which used to hang from the arched ceiling, but these may still be seen in a private house in the neighbourhood. The


THE ASSEMBLY BALL-ROOM

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 [Page 144]  window at the end, however, we got a glimpse of the sands and of the harbour and Cobb beyond.

Just outside this recessed window there is a steep flight of stone steps which leads from the Parade down to the beach. In former times this flight was much longer than it is now, part of it having been removed to make room for a cart track. On these steps the author of "Persuasion" effected the first meeting of Anne Elliot and her cousin, when his gaze of admiration attracted the attention of Captain Wentworth. Anne and her friends were all returning to their inn for breakfast, as the reader will remember, after taking a stroll on the beach.

Now the inn to which they were bound we fully believe to have been the "Royal Lion," which stands on the right-hand side about half way up the main street. The circumstances of the story all suggest it rather than the old "Three Cups," the only other inn of importance in Miss Austen's day. From the quaint projecting windows of the "Royal Lion" the ladies would be able to see Mr. Elliot's "curricle coming round from the stable yard to the front door," and could "all kindly watch" its owner as he drove up the steep hill. This would have been impossible from the windows of the "Three Cups," which stood at the bottom of the main street and turned slightly away from it. The "Three Cups" was [Page 145]  burnt down in 1844, but we have seen its site and have looked at an old print showing the building and its surroundings.

The personages introduced to us by Miss Austen are not only her creations they are her friends, and have long since become the friends of her readers, and so we pass and repass from them to their author as if all had equally together walked this earth. We look up at the windows of the "Royal Lion" and feel that it would be hardly surprising if we caught a glimpse of Anne's sweet face, or of Mary looking out for the "Elliot countenance," and we also look up the rambling old-world street and almost expect to see Miss Austen herself coming down it. The very sounds of Lyme suggest her day. The town-crier goes his rounds with his bell, and his orthodox shout of "O yes, O yes," announcing all matters of moment, such as the return of the trawlers to the harbour, or the arrival of a collier with coal; while at eight o'clock, each evening, the curfew bell is to be heard tolling in the old church tower on the crumbling cliff.

Miss Austen has spoken in praise of "the wooded varieties" of the "cheerful village of Uplyme." We may fancy her going there by a footpath along the valley through which the little river Lym winds. The ground shelves abruptly down to this stream from behind the houses in [Page 146]  the main street; some of whose terrace gardens descend to its banks. In one of the most beautiful of these gardens Mary Russell Mitford, when a child, used to play. She speaks in her "Recollections" of the beauty of this romantic garden and of the mansion rented by her father in 1795, where the great Earl of Chatham once lived. Its large gates surmounted by spread eagles are still to be seen in the main street. Opposite to them stands the tiny cottage of Mary Anning, the girl geologist, who discovered the giant bones of monsters that now stretch their length in our National Museum.

In walking up the valley by the side of the Lym, Miss Austen would pass a part of the stream called "Jordan" with its adjacent green sward known as "Paradise," where the early Baptist settlers baptized their followers. A little higher up she would pass Colway Farm, the headquarters of Prince Maurice during the famous siege of Lyme.

Everywhere in Lyme and its neighbourhood there are tokens of the troublous times through which it has passed, from the conquest of the "Invincible Armada" to the home tragedy of Monmouth's rebellion. But to-day in visiting the little sunny town these great and stirring memories pale before the thought of the work and of the writings of three quiet women - Mary Anning, [Page 147]  Mary Russell Mitford, and Jane Austen. Like Tennyson, we say "Don't talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth. Show me the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell!"

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Footnotes



[Page 140]
1 Article in Monthly Packet (1893), by John Vaughan.


[Page 141]
1 Article in Monthly Packet (1893), by John Vaughan.

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