Friday, June 20, 2014

Jane Austen at the Seaside

by Diana Birchall

“A Little Sea-bathing would set me up for ever” – Jane Austen

As we move toward midsummer, our thoughts may naturally turn toward the seaside, and as my thoughts ever turn toward Jane Austen, I have examined what the seaside meant to her, and what part it played in her life and writing.

Jane Austen at the seaside (1804)
Jane Austen is actually seen sitting by the seaside, in one of the two authenticated pictures of her, a water color done by her sister Cassandra in 1804. Only her back is shown, but we may imagine that she is enjoying the sea breezes. Perhaps she felt their reanimating and rejuvenating qualities, like her heroine Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who had “the bloom and freshness of youth restored” by her visit to the seaside.

In order to envision Jane Austen’s seaside, we must transport ourselves back to the coast of England two hundred years ago. We can dispense with picturing little Jenny Austen having bucket-and-spade summer holidays, as modern English children do. Jane Austen lived the first twenty-five years of her life mainly at Steventon, about thirty miles from the sea, a good day’s journey in those days. The busy Austen family, with George Austen rector of his parish and schooling a houseful of pupils as well, did not have money or leisure to frequent watering-places very often.

Yet the sea was important in the life of the Austen family. Jane Austen’s two sailor brothers were away at sea for most of her life starting in 1793, when she was seventeen. Frank, a year and a half older, and Charles, four years younger, served in the wars with France and America, and their letters home brought their family into contact with the wider world through their extensive travels. In many ways the Austens were a naval family, and as her nephew wrote, “with ships and sailors she felt herself at home.”

We don’t know exactly when Jane Austen first saw the sea, but it may be that her first visit was a tragic one. In 1783, at the age of seven, Jane and her sister Cassandra, then ten, were sent with their cousin Jane Cooper to school in the port city of Southampton. All three girls fell ill with typhus fever. They were taken to their homes, but Mrs. Cooper caught the disease and died. Jane Austen herself nearly died and was convalescent for about a year. Perhaps this gave her an idea that dangerous things might come from the sea. Not only disease, but the sea carried the dangers of accident, shipwreck, drowning, and warfare.

Jane wrote about such dangers in Persuasion, perhaps her most “nautical” novel. She rather coldly described the sailor Dick Musgrove: “he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross.” Dick Musgrove resembled the Austen brothers not at all, but he illustrates the hazards of seagoing life, and the way such news traveled.

Jane Austen writes more feelingly about the dangers to Anne’s beloved Captain Wentworth: “His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less, the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor's wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.”

The young Jane Austen may have been taken to Portsmouth to see her brothers at the Royal Naval Academy, or to see one of their ships in its berth, similar to a scene in Mansfield Park where Fanny first sees her brother William in his uniform. After spending two years at the Academy, Frank joined the Perseverance, under Gen. Cornwallis, East India bound.

The topaz crosses Charles gave to his sisters
Charles, meanwhile, was involved in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, and the taking of several Dutch prize ships; he famously spent some of his prize money buying his sisters topaz crosses. So Jane Austen might also see the sea as a changer of fortune and bringer of riches.

The Rev. George Austen’s busy working life centered around the home and parish, but in 1801, at the age of 70, he retired to Bath with his wife and daughters. Jane was then 25, and was not consulted about the move to Bath, which she disliked. Her father died in 1805, and Jane, her widowed mother and sister settled in Southampton, where they lived from 1805 to 1809, sharing quarters with Frank Austen and his wife Mary. The Austens looked forward to this move to the seaside, with Jane reporting “what happy feelings of escape” on leaving Bath.

They rented a house in Castle Square, with views across Southampton Water, over the old city walls and promenade. In Southampton they led a busy social life, with assemblies and balls; on one occasion Jane Austen wrote of dancing in “the same room in which we danced 15 years ago,” that is, in 1793.

We know something of that early visit to Southampton, where a plaque on the Dolphin Hotel reads: “It is said that Jane celebrated her 18th birthday here in the ball room of the Dolphin on 16 December 1793 with her brother Frank.” The plaque further reads, “Georgian Southampton was a spa resort. Running east from this spot was a waterside promenade for visitors to take daily exercise. Jane Austen and her family frequently walked along this shore, sometimes as far as Cross House Quay, where the Itchen Ferry operated.”

Netley Abbey
In 1807 the Austens used this ferry to visit Netley Abbey, the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England, whose ruins inspired Romantic writers. However, the only mention of Southampton Jane Austen makes in her fiction is in her juvenile work, Love & Freindship where she writes, “Beware of the unmeaning luxuries of Bath & of the stinking fish of Southampton.”

Portsmouth, where the Royal Naval Base is located, about 15 miles southeast of Southampton, was rather a squalid place when Frank and Charles were training there, with press gangs, brutality, prostitutes, and riots, all very different from the genteel home life the Austen boys had known.

Jane Austen has Fanny Price reflect on Portsmouth life in Mansfield Park: “The men appeared to her all coarse, the women all pert, everybody under-bred.” Fanny’s father “had no information beyond his profession; he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dock-yard, the harbour, Spithead, and the Motherbank.”

Yet the beauty of the seaside shines through even the rough aspects of Portsmouth, in the way Jane Austen describes Fanny’s walk along the ramparts with Henry Crawford: “Everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other, on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound.”

In 1808 Jane’s sister-in-law Elizabeth died with the birth of her 11th child. Her two eldest boys were at school in Winchester, and they were sent to visit Jane in Southampton, where she tried to cheer them up, taking them on “a little water party” along the river and rowing upstream to inspect a man o’ war. Soon afterward, Edward, Jane’s newly widowed brother, offered his mother and sisters a cottage near his house at Chawton. They left Southampton and were settled at their Chawton home in July 1809. Jane Austen’s seaside life was essentially over.

Jane Austen’s most extensive “watering-place” period was while she was living in Bath, for one of that city’s attractions, and certainly one of the things that reconciled her to living there, was that residents often made regular trips to seaside watering resorts. Bath, in an interior bowl, is hot during the summer, but seaside watering-places such as Lyme and Sidmouth were relatively accessible. By 1800 there were around 40 seaside settlements that had a holiday season, such as Brighton, Margate, and Ramsgate. Jane Austen wrote cheerfully at the prospect of one such tour to the seaside:

“The prospect of spending future summers by the sea or in Wales is very delightful. For a time we shall now possess many of the advantages which I have often thought of with Envy in the wives of Sailors or Soldiers.” Possibly one of the Austens’ purposes in these seaside tours, was to improve the prospects of this unmarried daughter.

In January 1801 she wrote that Sidmouth was “talked of” for their summer abode. There was also an invitation from their clergyman cousin Edward Cooper, Rector who was “so kind as to want us all to come to Hamstall this summer, instead of going to the sea, but we are not so kind as to mean to do it. The summer after, if you please, Mr. Cooper, but for the present we greatly prefer the sea to all our relations.”

Family tradition holds that it was at Sidmouth that Jane Austen met and fell in love with a young clergyman, who died. Nothing more is known of this incident, but it seems to confirm the impression that to Jane Austen, momentous, life-changing things did happen at the seaside.

According to scholar Brian Southam this visit to Sidmouth, as well as Barmouth and Tenby on the Welsh coast, occurred in summer 1801. The following year the Austens visited Dawlish and Teignmouth, and in 1803 and 1804 they went to Lyme Regis. They even traveled into Wales, visiting Tenby and Barmouth, a round trip from Bath of 400 miles.

Doctors recommended visits to such spas for ailments ranging from scurvy to putrid fever. The treatment consisted not only of bathing in seawater, but drinking it. The saltiness was sometimes cut with new milk, and it was an effective purgative.

In the early days, men and women bathed together, and there was no such thing as a bathing costume, but by Jane Austen’s day modesty was important and the bathing-machine was standard equipment. Ladies were plunged into the sea by strong women dippers. In September, 1804, Jane wrote about going into the water, at Lyme:

“The Bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired.”

In Sanditon, Jane Austen writes of Miss Diana Parker feeling the need “to encourage Miss Lambe in taking her first Dip. She is so frightened, poor thing, that I promised to come & keep up her Spirits, & go in the Machine with her if she wished it.”

Bathing Machines

Jane Austen’s readers would have known just what each resort meant, in social standing and gentility. Each seaside town had its own reputation. Tom Bertram of Mansfield Park met his raffish friends at Ramsgate, which is also where Mr. Wickham of Pride and Prejudice tried to abduct Georgiana Darcy. In Emma, John Knightley chose Southend as being near his home in London, while Mr. Perry recommended the more remote and colder Cromer.

Jane Austen used seaside locations most extensively in her later novels. Mansfield Park is thoroughly suffused with seaside references, with the sailor brother William and the Crawfords’ circle of Admirals; though Mary Crawford, no lover of nature, urges Fanny not to let the sea airs ruin her pretty looks. The heroine of Emma has never even seen the sea, though she finally achieves that delight on her honeymoon with Mr. Knightley, after she’s been purified of her willful ways. And there are a number of watery references in connection with hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, who holds that sea-air never did any body any good, and he is sure that it nearly killed him once.

It is in her last complete novel, Persuasion, that Jane Austen most intensely reveals her love for the sea, when she writes, “All must linger and gaze on a first return to the sea, who ever deserve to look on it at all.”

Jane Austen clearly felt all the enchantment of the seaside, but she also reveals it in another guise, as less idyllic for those who live there year round, not as tourists. Captain Harville and his family are settled in Lyme for the winter, in cheap lodgings. And the reader is reminded again of the dangers of the seaside with Louisa’s famous fall on the Cobb at Lyme. It is as if at the seaside, there’s no telling what will happen.

The different spas and seaside towns Jane Austen knew all had different characters and were frequented by people of differing social levels. Brighton, where the Prince Regent began building his Pavilion in 1813, is associated with immorality in Jane Austen’s novels, most famously with Lydia and Wickham; Wickham ran up a thousand pounds of debt in Brighton, and Elizabeth knew that a sojourn there would be “the death knell of all possibility of common sense for Lydia.”

Sanditon, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, seems the culmination of all that she observed in her stays at watering places. She chose this subject when she was in poor health, toward the end of her life, so it is no surprise that health, hypochondria, and medical men receive their share of satire in Sanditon.

She gives a meticulous, if humorous, picture of a watering-place that is actively being developed from its former fishing village existence. Her inimitable depiction of the enthusiastic promoter Tom Parker may have been based on Mr. Edward Ogle, the entrepreneur of Worthing, whom she knew. Austen wrote that Sanditon “was his Mine, his Lottery, his Speculation & his hobby horse; his Occupation his hope and his futurity.” She adds, in a wonderful satiric spate: “He held it indeed as certain that no person could be really in a state of secure & permanent Health without spending at least 6 weeks by the Sea every year. – The Sea air & 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.” By the time she wrote this, Jane Austen was already ill. For her there was no cure, and she could only mock such empty promises.

One final lovely word-picture from Sanditon: “Charlotte having received possession of her apartment, found amusement enough in standing at her ample Venetian window, & looking over the miscellaneous foreground of unfinished Buildings, waving Linen, & tops of Houses, to the Sea, dancing & sparkling in Sunshine & Freshness."


Diana Birchall is a story analyst at Warner Bros, reading novels to see if they would make movies. She is also the author of a scholarly biography of her grandmother, the first Asian American novelist, Onoto Watanna (University of Illinois Press), and several "Austenesque" novels, includingMrs. Darcy's Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America (Sourcebooks). She's also written and produced several Jane Austen-related comedy plays, and her latest, "A Dangerous Intimacy: Behind the Scenes at Mansfield Park", written in collaboration with Syrie James, is being featured at the Jane Austen Society of North America's conference in Montreal this October.

My blog:
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  1. A wonderful post, Debra! I'm sharing it on FB and Twitter so others can find it!

  2. Great focused post relevant to a project I'm working on about Jane Austen's fictional sister who is forced to prostitute herself in Portsmouth; quite a different life altogther from the gentry Jane writes about! Excellent references to the maritime influences on JA's work.

  3. Thank you, Regan! And my gosh, Linda, I'd love to hear more about your project, what a terrific idea!

  4. Enjoyed the information presented here. Thank you for this information on Jane's life. I learned a great deal. :-)

  5. A fantastic post - as always your wonderful knowledge and insights on all things Jane shine through!


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