Lyme Regis, by Michael Hutton
Miss Austen cuts a tantalizing figure. She is kept from us at arms-length by the span of about two centuries as well as by the protective arms of her beloved sister and closest friend Cassandra who, famously burned and censored much of her private correspondence. Thus, there is much of her all too short life that remains a mystery, which no doubt adds to the hunger for any information.
It therefore can hardly be wondered at that nearly any and every scrap of information about the private life of Jane Austen is twisted and turned over and over to see what hint of truth might eventually fall out. As the lady in question wrote some of the greatest love stories in the English language it might be considered quite natural that one of the areas of her private life people would be most interested in uncovering is her love life.
On the surface, there appears to be very little to be said on this topic. Apart from what seems to have been a brief flirtation with a young Irish law-student when Jane was twenty, there is very little else to suggest romance. A few years later she was briefly receiving the attentions of a young Rev. Samuel Blackall. She was proposed to once by a Mr. Harris Bigg Wither and was engaged for one night before breaking it off. She does not appear to have been interested in either Blackall or Bigg Wither and no other substantial romance appears to have taken place; except for one.
After Jane, her sister and their parents left the rectory at Steventon in 1801 and relocated to Bath, they spent a few sea-side holidays in the south west of England. At least one of these holidays was to the sea-town of Lyme Regis. Here, they supposedly stayed in what Austen described as ‘dirty’ and ‘inconvenient’ accommodations rented to them by a landlord who was often unreasonable to deal with, but it has also been speculated that is was here that Jane is said to havemet a young man who excited her interest. It was her sister Cassandra, who later told this story to their niece, Caroline Austen. The two sisters had apparently been there together and had both become acquainted with an unidentified young man. It is said that Cassandra spoke of this young gentleman in high terms. Apparently, he enquired whether they might be returning the following year and they were all planning on meeting then again. Before that time, however, the unhappy news of the young man’s untimely death reached the two sisters and so that was the end of the potential of that love story.
This is the story, relayed in its broadest strokes and, unfortunately for us, in its greatest detail. From here, the details seem to be widely disagreed upon, both by interested members of the public as well as Jane’s own family. There are those who believe this mystery-person to have been the clergyman Samuel Blackall whom Jane had previously expressed indifference towards. Another of Jane Austen’s nieces, Catherine Hubback, seems to have believed it likely writing that Jane and Cassandra met with him at ‘a watering place’. Others believe it was a doctor whose brother was a clergyman. Furthermore, there are those who say that both the sisters were in love with this mystery-man and it caused a rift between them.
Beach at Lyme Regis, by Nick Fewings
These speculators point to lines of poetry written by Austen as evidential of this. Some are certain that the romance took place in Lyme Regis. Others believe it was somewhere in Devonshire. There are those who believe Jane Austen even became engaged to this gentleman. There seems no end to the speculations.
What Caroline Austen said that Cassandra told her on the matter was that she believed this young man, whoever he was, was indeed in love with her sister and that she believed Jane was likely to return his affection. However, as attractive as the idea may be, there is no evidence that there was such feelings between them, that such a meeting occurred, that the young man died or that he even ever even existed. Though there may well have been some truth to the story, there are no names, dates or places to pin-point or claim as fact. We simply do not know, as we have no real evidence to show for it. What we do have, however, is something equally as thrilling. It is another love story, with sea-side scenes in the town of Lyme Regis, and this time we get a fully realised happy ending. In the novel Persuasion, Jane Austen writes affectionately the view of the sea. As a group of the novel’s characters first travel to Lyme, Austen makes this observation.
“The party from Uppercross (…) lingering only, as all must linger and gaze on a first return to the sea, who ever deserve to look on it at all.” (Ch. 11)
Austen also has her heroine Anne Elliott express fondness for the place of Lyme and a wish to see it again.
“There is real beauty in Lyme, and in short (…) altogether my impressions of the place are very agreeable.” (Ch. 20)
she tells Captain Wentworth.
If we make such conjecture as to align Jane Austen’s own feelings with those she attribute to the character of Anne, we may believe that Jane herself had some lingering fondness for the place and that this was her reason for using it as a setting for her novel. Whether this fondness stems from the remembrance of a romantic attachment or simply an appreciation for scenic, sea-side holiday beauty, may be left up to the imagination. Whether the novel of Persuasion was itself originally inspired by the place of Lyme, may simply be another romantic speculation. The autumnal scenes in the novel as well as the fact that Jane is said to have visited Lyme with her family in an autumn season, may well add fuel to that particular fire. Whatever real-life romantic tale may or may not have played out Lyme, we may cherish the literary one that did, which is as tantalizing a work of imagination as any love-story-theory out there.
Anna-Christina Rod Østergaard is 26-year-old university student, currently reading for a master’s degree in English and Philosophy at Aalborg University in Denmark. She reads every Austen novel at least once a year and rarely reads a book that is less than a century old. She is a lover of history, literature, folklore, fairy-tales and, of course, Jane Austen. If you, like Anna-Christina would like to make a contribution to the Jane Austen blog, read our instructions on how to Submit a Blog