Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.2
Critical Essay

 

CAROL A. MARTIN
"These Would Have Been All My Friends": Lyme Regis and Jane Austen's Anne Elliot

Contemporary readers of fiction traveling to England and thinking of a literary pilgrimage to Lyme Regis might visit that picturesque southern coastal town, not far from Thomas Hardy's "Wessex," to retrace the steps of characters in the twentieth-century novel The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles and its film version starring Meryl Streep, who gave modern audiences a dramatic look at The Cobb, Lyme Regis's long stone breakwater, on which Streep stood precariously as wind and sea threatened her footing. But modern Jane Austen devotees, like many a reader of the late nineteenth century, would be more likely to think of Lyme Regis, as Fanny Caroline Lefroy did in Temple Bar in 1879, as the place Jane Austen "has immortalized" and the Cobb as "more famous than any wonders of its construction" because Austen made it the site of Louisa Musgrove's accident.'

Austen's description of Lyme Regis is a brief one, as is often true of description in her work. In chapter I I of Persuasion, we first see Lyme Regis as we accompany the party from Uppercross in their walk "directly down to the sea," though by the end of that first descriptive paragraph, the response ("these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood," 95-96) clearly belongs to Jane Austen, who visited Lyme in 1804, rather than to any of the Musgrove party. Though Anne Elliot later says she found Lyme Regis "very agreeable" (184), at this point the speaker seems to be Austen herself, who enjoyed the "delightful" bathing there (Austen, Letters 143), and found the place "beautiful" (Halperin 306). In the first half of the paragraph, however, the Cobb is seen from a stranger's eyes, perhaps collectively those of the Musgrove party; it has "old wonders and new improvements," and the town itself possesses a "remarkable situation." But place quickly gives way to human relations. Almost as soon as the party reaches the Cobb, they are joined by Captain Wentworth's friends, and the narrator describes the first general impressions of Captains Harville and Benwick on the others.

This scene at Lyme Regis is crucial to the novel's action; it offers greater insight into its thematic and characterization contrasts than the later, more dramatic scene of Louisa's famous jump on the Cobb, for it is here that both the reader and Anne come to the fullest awareness of what she lost in the termination of her engagement. Normally observant (Anne's connection with the natural scene in the walk of the Musgrove party to Winthrop, where nature is both symbol and consolation for Anne, has often been commented upon), Anne at Lyme Regis, one of the most picturesque spots

in Southern England, can observe nothing of the scene but sees only the warm friendliness of the navy group and realizes that had she persisted in her engagement to Captain Wentworth "These would have been all my friends" (98). Immediately following is a reference to the party's "quitting the Cobb" and going all "indoors with their new friends" whose warmth of hospitality exceeds their limited quarters. But it doesn't matter. Anne "thought she left great happiness behind her when they quitted the [Harvillel house" (99). On the Cobb and later in talking with Captain Benwick, Anne is aware of the loss, not only of her lover but of a place of friendship, from which she is notoriously excluded throughout the novel, having no real home at Uppercross (being an outsider she can be called upon as judge in family disputes) and being a "nothing" ("only Anne," 5) to her family. Benwick, having lost Fanny Harville, finds consolation in being part of her family; Anne has nothing comparable. Seeing all this at Lyme, Anne "had to struggle against a great tendency to lowness" (98).

If Barbara Hardy is right that "Jane Austen keeps very strictly to what appears to be her self-created rule of characteristic description [that if] someone in the novel is not registering the appearance, cost or savor of things, they are kept out," we might not anticipate more description of the Cobb and the seacoast. Yet chapter 12 opens with Anne and Henrietta "stroll[ing] down to the sea before breakfast" the next day "to the sand, to watch the flowing of the tide.... They praised the morning; gloried in the sea; sympathized in the delight of the fresh-feeling breeze-and were silent" (102). When Henrietta breaks the silence, her conversation is a comic parody of Anne's plight, for she can think only of her lover (who needs a "place"), regarding Lyme as a possible retirement home for her clergyman, Dr. Shirley, whose vacancy then would fall to Charles Hayter-and Henrietta. Place "gives place" to our sense of the frivolousness of the Musgrove girls and the little ironic laugh we share with Anne at Henrietta's transparent solicitousness. The occasion provides a momentary lifting of the "lowness" in Anne and one critical event in the plot as well: it brings Anne to the notice of her cousin Mr. William Elliot-and, in her suddenly-regarded beauty, to Captain Wentworth as well.

The group's final and most memorable visit to the Cobb gives even less sense of the physical place. That "[t] here was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies" (109) is all we need to know to provide a reason for the party to go down the stairs from which Louisa makes her foolish jump. Apart from one mention of the "workmen and boatmen around the Cobb," the best looking of whom help escort Henrietta back to the Harvilles, place is lost in the emotions and actions of the characters.

What is it then, that makes Lyme Regis so memorable for the Austen reader of any era? Fanny Lefroy quotes Tennyson's wish to see the "precise spot where Louise Musgrave [sic] fell" and she has an equally enthusiastic desire to trace out the spot herself. Even a modern scholar like Halperin has perhaps tried the pilgrimage line; he speculates that the Harville house "may be modelled on the place-Mrs. Dean's house, on the Cobb side of the bay-in which the Austens stayed during part of their visit to Lyme Regis" (306).

Unlike Jane Austen, her grand-niece Fanny Lefroy is full of description. She finds lodgings in 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 service of danger to get up and down it." This cottage she at first takes (wishes?) to be the very house the Harvilles lived in, until she is "struck ... dumb" on reflecting that Louisa was "carried" up to a room: "That dreadful staircase; could any man, even though a sailor, have carried any young lady up that dark and crooked ladder?-and not only dark and crooked, but with a projecting beam in the darkest corner, from which one could scarcely save one's own head" (392). She also gives a full description of the Cobb: its history from its first construction-" two years after the accession of Edward III"-entirely of wood piles, which had to be replaced after each storm, "until the time of James I., when somebody had the genius to build it of stone" (394). The guidebooks that the writer brought were apparently unclear in showing which parts of the Cobb Austen might have known and therefore meant as a setting for Louisa's jump. Miss Lefroy and her party must find some one to ask regarding the damage from the great storm of 1817: "Any sailor would know all about it; so seeing a remarkably fine-looking preventive man [a term referring to a Customs, or specifically Coast Guard, man concerned with the prevention of smuggling] coming along with his telescope under his arm, we stopped him, and, like Catherine Morland, asked what we wanted to be told" (395).

Lefroy's reference to Northanger Abbey is part of her general, understandable devotion to Austen and part too of her apparent practice of following the settings of the novels about elsewhere. Though she begins by affirming that Austen has immortalized Lyme Regis, she notes just two pages later that in going to the library to get a copy of Persuasion to use as a guidebook for finding just the "precise spot" of the fall, she feels "some doubt" about being able to get the book at all. She adds that "some few years ago," trying to trace out places in Bath described in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, she found that the Bath library "not only had not got it [presumably had neither work] but had never even heard of Jane Austen!" (393) Lyme Regis was, apparently, more conscious of its debt. Not only did the library have a copy of Persuasion, but "some one had added to its title, 'A Story of the Cobb... (393).

Anticipating Barbara Hardy, George Henry Lewes, who had, of course, heard of Austen and often reread her works aloud with George Eliot, argued in 1859 that Austen "seldom describes anything, and is not felicitous when she attempts it. But instead of description, the common and easy resource of novelists, she has the rare and difficult art of dramatic presentation" (157). Surely this is the key to the importance of Lyme Regis in the novel, and in a much more subtle way than the obvious dramatic opportunity to show Louisa's unregulated determination and Anne's calm maturity. The scenes that precede Louisa's jump demonstrate to Anne fully what she has lost in a way that only becomes apparent in the course of the novel, when the place she held (quite minor, of course, as the second and unregarded daughter) at Kellynch Hall is gone. So little esteemed that her father and sister find the vulgar Mrs. Clay a preferred companion in Bath, Anne is an outcast. Even her "friend" Lady Russell, to whose home she will go after leaving Uppercross, is mostly, in the novel, stated to be a friend, and not shown so. Lady Russell was not Anne's friend when she caused her to break her engagement. As a result, dramatically, she is distanced from the reengagement of a couple she kept apart for eight years. Lady Russell is also separate thematically from Anne's might-have-been friends; she belongs not to the naval group but to those who give, or at least enjoy, the "dinners of formality and display" that the narrator contrasts unfavorably with the "bewitching charm" of the Harvilles' hospitality (98). Lady Russell is once even referred to with a touch of irony as Anne's "excellent friend" (147). But of "excellent friends" Anne has none, except perhaps Mrs. Smith.

It is true that in a partial way, Captain Wentworth seems to be situated in respect to Anne exactly as she is in respect to him: if she can think "These would have been all my friends," Wentworth later notes that in Bath he was in the "midst of those who could not be my well-wishers" (Anne's connections). But the comparison is only partial. When Anne sees him in Lyme Regis, he is in the midst of true friends who would welcome eagerly his wife and become her friends as well. In contrast, Anne's family and friends would not wish Wentworth well, and don't make her especially welcome either. The distinction is pointed up sharply in the conclusion, when Anne has no family (worth giving) to offer Wentworth, whereas his brothers and sisters give her "warmth" and a "prompt welcome" (251). It is also pointed up subtly when, both Wentworth and Anne leaving Lyme Regis, she goes to stay with her sister and father, who are "glad to see her." The phrase sounds more positive than the reader expects, and it is, for the sentence concludes, "for the sake of showing her the house and furniture" (137). Wentworth goes to his brother, and though he is oppressed by the terrible consequences he seems to have produced for himself in heedlessly courting Louisa, he can take pleasure in his brother's happiness if in nothing else (243).

That this sense of a place for Anne among Wentworth's navy "brothers" as well as his biological family should begin at Lyme Regis is appropriate to the character of this naval man who has made his own way, in contrast to squandering an inheritance, as Sir Walter Elliot has done. Anyone who has been to Lyme Regis even for a very short time cannot help but be aware of the sea-the sea air, the sea sound in the pounding surf outside the Pilot, where on a cold November night the rushing sound of the pebbles can be heard as they tumble with each wave through the passageways between the walls of the houses around that cozy pub. Lyme Regis is Captain Wentworth's "elernent"-or at least as close to it as Jane Austen can bring us.' With her emphasis on presentation of the known, Lyme, the sea place that Jane Austen knew, becomes the sea place where Captain Wentworth, in his "element," can read character correctly and come to know his own feelings. Anne Elliot has never doubted her own feelings, but at Lyme Regis she clearly registers her loss, aware that it is Wentworth's "place" where his friends "would have been all my friends."

Perhaps Anne thinks of this when she says "I should very much like to see Lyme again" (1 83) in the first conversation with Captain Wentworth that indicates to her he still loves her; Lyme's beauties were not unnoticed entirely, but they were lost in her sense of loss. However, as Anne tells him, of Lyme, "when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure" (184). This makes little sense in reference to Louisa's accident, but much sense in reference to her need for both love and friendship and to her returning vision that both may be possible. To Lyme Regis, symbol of the warm friends who would be hers with her lover, she would be glad to return.

NOTES

As Jane Austen's popularity has grown in the twentieth century, Lefroy and other nineteenth-century literary pilgrims have been followed by many more readers who have been fascinated with place in Austen's novels, from writers like Benson and MacKinnon in the Cornhill early in the century to more recent critics like Bodenheimer, Duckworth, and Spence.

' To recall Jane Austen's belief that a writer must know his or her subject, one has only to remember her advice to Anna Austen regarding the latter's plan to send the characters in her fiction to Ireland: "And we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations" (Letters 395).

WORKS CITED

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters to her sister Cassandra and others. Ed. R. W. Chapman.
2nd edition. London: Oxford UP, 1959.
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd edition. Vol. 5 of The
Novels of Jane Austen.
London: Oxford UP, 1933. 6 vols.
Benson, Arthur Christopher. "Jane Austen at Lyme Regis." Cornhill Magazine n.s. 26
(1909): 682-693.
Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. "Looking at Landscape in Jane Austen." SEL21(1981):605
625.
Duckworth, Alastair M. The Improvement of the Estate, A Study of Jane Austen's Novels.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.
Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.
Hardy, Barbara. "Properties and Possessions in Jane Austen's Novels." Jane Austen's Achievement, Papers delivered at the Jane Austen Bicentennial Conference at the University of Alberta. Ed. Juliet McMaster. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976.
L[efroy], F[anny] C[aroline]. "Hunting for Snarkes at Lyme Regis." Temple Bar 57 (1879): 391-397.
Lewes, George Henry. "The Novels of Jane Austen." Jane Austen, The Critical Heritage. Ed. B. C. Southam. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968. Rpt. from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 86 (1859): 99-113.
MacKinnon, Sir Frank Douglas. "Topography and Travel in Jane Austen's Novels." Cornhill Magazine n.s. 59 (1925): 184-199.
Spence, Jon. "The Abiding Possibilities of Nature in Persuasion." SEL 21 (1981):626-636.