Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Jane Austen's 'Persuasion': The Cobb at Lyme

In a letter written to Cassandra from Lyme on 14 September 1804 Jane Austen mentions a walk she had on the Cobb at Lyme Regis: 'I called yesterday morning – (ought it not in strict propriety be termed Yester-Morning?) on Miss Armstrong, & was introduced to her father & Mother. Like other young Ladies she is considerably genteeler than her Parents; Mrs. Armstrong sat darning a pr of Stockings the whole of my visit –. But I do not mention this at home, lest a warning should act as an example. – We afterwards walked together for an hour on the Cobb; she is very conversable in a common way; I do not perceive Wit or Genius – but she has Sense and some degree of Taste, & her manners are very engaging'.

So Jane knew the Cobb well.

Now think of the famous chapter in 'Persuasion' in which Louisa falls from the steps of the Cobb. How many readers could recall how it begins? It starts quietly with one of those incidental, delightfully-ironic conversations in which Jane's novels are so rich. Anne and Henrietta are taking an early stroll by the sea. Henrietta talks about Dr. Shirley, the vicar, and wishes he would move permanently to the seaside: she argues that it would be good for his health at his time of life. Her motive is not entirely altruistic - the removal of Dr. Shirley would create the need for a curate to replace him; the post would suit Charles Hayter well; she could then marry Charles.

Anne discerns all this but answers sympathetically. Thus more light is subtly cast on the characters of both ladies.

Then there is additional irony: Henrietta wishes Lady Russell could somehow be induced to persuade Dr. Shirley to retire. She is sure Lady Russell has remarkable powers of persuasion - powers Anne knows only too well.

Such is the artistry with which Jane Austen writes so many episodes.