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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Lyme Regis as Jane Austen saw it

As part of the Museum's Maritime Walks Week, Fred Humphrey took a small group of visitors and locals on a fascinating 90-minute tour of "Lyme Regis as Jane Austen saw it". As shown on the left, Fred appeared in the guise of Admiral Croft from Persuasion -- the novel by "Miss Austen" (as he insisted on calling her) that is partly set in Lyme. The tour started at the town's old harbour, called the Cobb, which is where Fred is standing in the photograph... in front of some precipitous steps known as "Granny's Teeth".

The Cobb would have been a centre of activity in Jane Austen's time, when Lyme was a flourishing port as well as a leisure resort. It was the latter role that brought the Austen family to Lyme, of course, since holidays by the seaside were the fashionable thing at the time -- boosted by one Dr Russell who had claimed, in the mid-eighteenth century, that sea bathing was the healthiest pursuit imaginable. Nevertheless, Jane was interested in the maritime side of things as well, and may even have been a closet "ship-spotter"... apparently she rebuked an acquaintance for not knowing the difference between a sloop and a frigate!

The Cobb features in one of the most memorable scenes in Persuasion, when Louisa Musgrove knocks herself out jumping down some steps. The novel is sufficiently precise that we can be reasonably sure just which steps these were -- not the precarious Granny's Teeth pictured above, but another set of steps a bit further along (pictured right -- with a member of the tour group descending rather more cautiously than Louisa Musgrove did!)

From the Cobb, the tour proceeded along Marine Parade (known as "The Walk" in Jane Austen's day) to the main part of town, with Fred pointing out the relatively small number of features which still remain from the early nineteenth century. The beach was there in those days, of course, but instead of lying on it wearing sun block and very little else, female visitors would have been completely hidden from view within contraptions known as "bathing machines"!

At the end of Marine Parade, where it intersects with Broad Street and Bridge Street, is the site of the most imposing building of Jane Austen's Lyme -- the Assembly Rooms. Sadly, the building was demolished in 1924, and the site is now a small car park. However, Fred assured us that in its time it would have rivalled the Assembly Rooms in Bath (presumably in terms of grandeur rather than size, since there's only a limited amount of space!).

It's well-recorded that Jane Austen visited the Assembly Rooms on several occasions while she was in Lyme. What is less well recorded is exactly where she stayed in the town -- probably in several different lodging houses. A short way up Broad Street there is a rather seedy looking building bearing a blue plaque (pictured below) with the inscription "Pyne House: This is the most likely lodging of Jane Austen, whose visits to Lyme in 1803 and 1804 gave birth to her novel 'Persuasion'."
For more information on Jane Austen's connections with Lyme Regis, see the Jane Austen page of the main Museum website. If you're interested in going on one of the many excellent guided walks organized by the Museum, visit the Events page... or keep an eye on this blog!