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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Jane Austen and the seaside

Sands near Chit Rock, Sidmouth    from A new guide descriptive of the beauties of Sidmouth    by Rev Edmund Butcher (1830)
Sands near Chit Rock, Sidmouth
  from A new guide descriptive of the beauties of Sidmouth
  by Rev Edmund Butcher (1830)

I have just finished rereading Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last novel, completed by ‘another lady’. The description of Sanditon was of particularly interest to me as I have been researching sea bathing in the Georgian era and this gave me a contemporary, albeit fictional, description of the seaside.

The words that Jane Austen put into Mr Parker’s mouth represented the fashionable view of the seaside at the time and she must have been consciously echoing the words of such sea bathing enthusiasts as Dr Crane of Weymouth who wrote Cursory Observations on Sea-bathing.

Mr Parker on the seaside

Mr Parker “held it indeed as certain that no person could be really well, no person (however upheld for the present by fortuitous aids of exercise and spirits in a semblance of health) could be really in a state of secure and permanent health without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year. The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every disorder of the stomach, the lungs or the blood. They were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-septic, anti-bilious and anti-rheumatic. Nobody could catch cold by the sea; nobody wanted appetite by the sea; nobody wanted spirits; nobody wanted strength. Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing – fortifying and bracing – seemingly just as was wanted – sometimes one, sometimes the other.”

A cure for all ills?

So was Jane Austen really convinced of the infallibility of the seaside as a cure for all ills? I think not! Rather she was laughing at the current fashion by creating the indefatigable Mr Parker who is both likeable and somewhat ridiculous in his extreme enthusiasm for Sanditon. It made me wonder about Jane Austen’s real opinion of the seaside.

Jane Austen in Devon

Sidmouth from Chit Rock    from A new guide descriptive of the beauties of Sidmouth    by Rev Edmund Butcher (1830)
Sidmouth from Chit Rock
  from A new guide descriptive of the beauties of Sidmouth
  by Rev Edmund Butcher (1830)
Jane Austen went to the seaside on several occasions and seemed to enjoy the experience. She visited Sidmouth in Devon in 1801, and it was here that it is believed that she met the true love of her life, a gentleman who returned her affection but tragically died soon afterwards. It is no wonder that Sidmouth had a special place in her heart and Sanditon is thought to be based on Sidmouth. She stayed in Devon again in 1802, visiting Dawlish and Teignmouth.

Jane Austen in Lyme Regis

In 1804, Jane visited Lyme Regis with her parents whilst her sister, Cassandra, was on a visit to Weymouth with her brother Henry. Jane enjoyed sea bathing but could never resist a jibe at fashion. In a letter to Cassandra written on September 14 1804 Jane wrote:

“I continue quite well in proof of which I have bathed again this morning. It was absolutely necessary that I should have the little fever and indisposition which I had; it has been all the fashion this week in Lyme.”

Lyme Regis in Jane Austen’s novels

Re-enacting Louisa's famous jump in Persuasion    in the pouring rain on the Cobb at Lyme Regis
Re-enacting Louisa's famous jump in Persuasion
  in the pouring rain on the Cobb at Lyme Regis
Jane was very taken with the natural beauty of Lyme Regis and this comes out in her description of it in Persuasion.

“… the remarkable situation of the town, the principal street almost hurrying into the water, 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.”

“They praised the morning; gloried in the sea; sympathised in the delight of the fresh-feeling breeze – and were silent; till Henrietta suddenly began again, with – ‘Oh, yes! I am quite convinced that, with very few exceptions, the sea-air always does good.’”

Cassandra in Weymouth

On the other hand, Jane Austen’s feelings about Weymouth, which she appears to have known only by report, were less positive. In a letter to Cassandra who was staying there, she pigeonholed it as a resort for the fashionable elite.

“Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no ice in the town. For every other vexation I was in some measure prepared, and particularly for your disappointment in not seeing the Royal family go on board” … “but for there being no ice … what could prepare me? Weymouth is altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind and worthy only of being frequented by the inhabitants of Gloucester [referring to a newspaper report of HRH the Duke of Gloucester’s arrival in Weymouth to visit the Royal Family]. I am really very glad that we did not go there.”

Weymouth in Jane Austen’s novels

Weymouth and Melcombe Regis seafront  from Weymouth as a Watering Place  published by Simpkin & Marshall (1857)
Weymouth and Melcombe Regis seafront
from Weymouth as a Watering Place
published by Simpkin & Marshall (1857)
It seems likely that the repeated visits of George III had made Weymouth too busy for her liking and it is portrayed in her novels as a seaside resort for the frivolous fashionable. In Mansfield Park, Tom Bertram met John Yates in Weymouth. In Sense and Sensibility, silly Mrs Palmer had been visiting in Weymouth with her uncle and had therefore missed Mr Willoughby’s previous visit to Allenham. And in Emma, it is at Weymouth that Jane Fairfax had made the acquaintance of Frank Churchill. The implication is that Jane Austen viewed Weymouth as a place for profligate young men and silly women and the ideal venue for contracting a foolish, secret engagement.

Jane Austen’s opinion of Brighton

Jane appeared to like Brighton even less. Although I can find no record of Jane ever having visited there, her aversion to the place is clear. In a letter of 8 January 1799, she wrote: “I assure you that I dread the idea of going to Brighton as much as you do, but I am not without hopes that something may happen to prevent it.”

Brighton in Jane Austen’s novels

Brighton Pavilion
Brighton Pavilion
This dislike of Brighton, perhaps for its busyness or its association with the Prince of Wales, is translated into her novels. Brighton is where Jane’s disreputable characters go.

In Pride and Prejudice, three of Jane Austen’s silliest characters, Mrs Bennet, Lydia and Kitty, are all desperate to go to Brighton, the most fashionable seaside resort of the time:

“'If one could but go to Brighton!' observed Mrs Bennet.
'Oh, yes! If one could but go to Brighton! But papa is so disagreeable.'
'A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever.'”

Lydia, of course, gets her wish of going to Brighton – and proceeds to elope from there with the infamous Wickham!

In Mansfield Park, the Rushworths go to Brighton for their honeymoon, with Julia Bertram in tow.

“The plan of the young couple was to proceed, after a few days, to Brighton, and take a house there for some weeks. Every public place was new to Maria, and Brighton is almost as gay in winter as in summer.”

But even the entertainments of Brighton and London are insufficient to keep the young Mrs Rushworth contented for long and ultimately she succumbs to the illicit attractions of Henry Crawford.

So did Jane Austen like the seaside?

I think the answer is most definitely "yes", though she did not care for the fashionable resorts of the time. Her description of Lyme Regis in Persuasion is full of praise, asking the reader the question: "How could you not like it?" I like to think that she would have come to appreciate Weymouth (my home town) for the same reasons, once the Royal influence had moved on to Brighton and it had become less fashionable.

Burton Bradstock, Dorset
Burton Bradstock, Dorset
Sources used include:
Austen, Jane, and another lady, Sanditon (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, GB)
Austen, Jane, Emma (1816, London)
Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1813, London)
Austen, Jane, My dear Cassandra, letters to her sister selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (Collins & Brown Ltd, 1990, London)
Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818, London)
Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813, London)
Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811, London)
Butcher, Rev Edmund, A new guide descriptive of the beauties of Sidmouth (1830, Exeter)
Cecil, David, A Portrait of Jane Austen (Constable, 1978; Penguin, 1980, London)
Chedzoy, Alan, Seaside Sovereign - King George III at Weymouth (The Dovecote Press, 2003, Wimborne)
Feltham, John, Editor of the Picture of London, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1815)
Simpkin & Marshall, Weymouth as a Watering Place (Simpkin & Marshall, 1857, London)

Photographs by Andrew Knowles -


  1. Very interesting post, and blog, too, Rachel. I had wondered whether Jane ever got to (was forced) to go to Brighton in the end. I'd have loved to have her opinion on it in more detail, but as she never wrote specific descriptions of it, just sent her "disreputables" there, I guess she only knew it by hearsay.

    1. I think it is quite difficult to be sure what Jane really thought about places. She so often responded with wit that her real opinion might have been quite different! But I do think she truly disliked the Regent and as Brighton was so associated with him, it was the ideal place to send her flighty Lydia to.

  2. Great post! I'm researching for a book on the Georgian seaside at the moment & this rings so true, especially the sea as a cure-all for everything. So funny about Weymouth and the shortage of ice.

  3. I think that Weymouth was the foremost Georgian seaside resort - but I am biased as I live there. :)