A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
Anne Elliott has endured some seven lonely years of sorrow and regret since she was persuaded to break off her engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth. Now he has returned and they are amongst a party visiting the seaside town of Lyme Regis.
There was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. In all their walks, he had had to jump her from the stiles; the sensation was delightful to her. The hardness of the pavement for her feet, made him less willing upon the present occasion; he did it, however. She was safely down, and instantly, to show her enjoyment, ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain, she smiled and said, "I am determined I will:" He put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless!
The protagonist of Persuasion, Anne Elliott, may at first appear to lack the spirit and sparkle of Austen’s other heroines. Slighted by her narcissistic father, she has become a background figure. She was ‘nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight.’ Only Lady Russell, a close friend of Anne’s dead mother, treats her with love and respect. But Lady Russell is a forceful character. It was she who had sided with Anne’s father and persuaded her to refuse Wentworth’s marriage proposal; young and vulnerable, Anne had dutifully complied, but it was the biggest mistake of her life.
Anne’s father, Sir Walter, is a terrible snob and obsessed with the conventions and hierarchy of the nobility. He considered Captain Wentworth, with no prospects and no ‘connexions’, to be beneath the daughter of a landed baronet. But now Wentworth has returned, having achieved the success and wealth he said he would, and Sir Walter is on a downward trajectory. Ignoring Anne’s sage advice, he has frittered away his fortune and is obliged to let their beloved ancestral home in Somerset, to none other than relations of Captain Wentworth.
At the age of twenty-seven, Anne is approaching spinsterhood. Grieving for Wentworth, she turned down a subsequent marriage proposal from Charles Musgrove, who later married her sister. She faces the prospect of a cloistered future spent dancing attendance on her uncaring family.
Her mood is understandably melancholy. Formerly ‘extremely pretty’, she has lost her ‘bloom’. Her father thinks she is ‘haggard’ and Wentworth describes her as ‘wretchedly altered’. He, in contrast, has an even ‘more glowing, manly, open look’, which causes flutterings in the breasts of Anne’s sisters-in- law, Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove.
Towards Anne, Wentworth is distant. ‘His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.’ Yet his almost involuntary occasional little kindnesses towards her betray his deeper emotions:
She understood him. He could not forgive her,- but he could not be unfeeling.
Wentworth makes it clear he is looking for a wife and Louisa soon appears to be the likely candidate. At twenty she is pretty and vivacious, if thoughtless and rather shallow. When Wentworth plans a visit to friends in Lyme Regis she is ‘wild’ to form a party for the excursion, and Anne is pressed to join them.
For Jane Austen, visits to the seaside had been one of the few compensations for living in Bath, a town she disliked. She had spent at least two holidays at Lyme Regis with her family. In the early 19th century Lyme Regis was a modestly popular resort for summer visitors, where naval men lingered between seafaring commissions. It nestles in a narrow valley opening onto a dramatic cliff-lined coast with white sandy beaches. Here, Austen relished the two sensual pleasures available to her as a spinster: dancing and bathing in the sea.
In September 1804 she wrote to her sister Cassandra about the salt water bathing, that was then so fashionable. This involved the use of a bathing machine, a type of little hut on wheels, into which the lady entered and could be pulled directly into the sea, thereby having her modesty protected. From the hut she would descend to the water with the aid of a ‘dipper’, a female attendant. Austen had found the bathing ‘so delightful … I believe I staid in rather too long’. She found the balls at the Assembly Hall ‘pleasant’ and enjoyed the serpentine clifftop walks towards Charmouth and across the Downs to Uplyme. She took notes to which she referred when writing Persuasion some ten years later. Her voice rings with conviction through the narrator’s comment:
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.
Austen generally avoided descriptions of landscape in her novels, tending to treat the natural world as a backdrop for human nature. In Sense and Sensibility she makes fun of Marianne Dashwood’s romantic zest for natural scenery. But Lyme is an exception and she waxes lyrical (for Austen), describing the ‘beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town’; its surrounding ‘sweeps of country’; a ‘sweet retired bay’ and ‘cheerful village’; orchards of luxuriant growth and places ideally suited for ‘unwearied contemplation’. She concludes: ‘these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.’
Anne and Henrietta, finding themselves the earliest of the party the next morning, agreed to stroll down to the sea before breakfast. They went to the sands, to watch the flowing of the tide, which a fine south-easterly breeze was bringing in with all the grandeur which so flat a shore admitted. They praised the morning; gloried in the sea; sympathised in the delight of the fresh-feeling breeze—
The party has arrived in November 1814, when the town is in hibernation. Street performers are gone, bathing machines are packed away and the shops boarded up in preparation for winter’s storms. They make their way to the beach, ‘lingering only, as all must linger and gaze on a first return to the sea, who ever deserve to look on it at all.’ There is little to do but take a stroll and hope one’s walking partner is ‘an able conversationalist’. Off go the characters in their expected pairs towards the landmark of the Cobb, that dramatic setting for the fall was to put Lyme on the literary map forever.
Lyme Harbour’s ancient semi-circular sea wall, known as the Cobb, is a massive stone jetty with an upper and lower level. Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra that when walking along it she had passed a steep flight of roughly hewn steps from the upper to the lower level, known as ‘Granny’s Teeth’. With no railing for support, they could be hazardous for women in long dresses. Years later she drew on this memory when writing about the fall of Louisa Musgrove.
The accident occurs in a pivotal scene halfway through the book, initiating a change of feeling between Anne and Wentworth. After Louisa’s accident, Anne is the only person in the party of men and women to keep her head. She takes charge, comforting, calming and assuaging the feelings of the others and ‘attending with all the strength and zeal, and thought, which instinct supplied.’
Louisa has not died as at first feared, and when she is moved to the nearby home of the Harvilles, Wentworth suggests the person to stay on to assist with her care should be Anne: ‘no one so proper, so capable as Anne!’ His compliment, together with his shift to first name intimacy, signals to Anne that he is softening his attitude towards her.
“You will stay, I am sure; you will stay and nurse her;” cried he, turning to her and speaking with a glow, and yet a gentleness, which seemed almost restoring the past. – She coloured deeply.
From this point Anne begins to recover her authority and regain her voice, enabling her to express the intelligence and fine values that Wentworth had fallen in love with so long ago.
According to Peter Graham in Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists (2008), Austen chose Lyme Regis as the setting for this scene because it was less class-conscious than Bath. Its unpretentiousness suited the relaxed amiability of Wentworth’s fellow officers and provided Anne with an escape from the constraints of her everyday life.
Seeing Wentworth at his most natural among his peers, she could experience the friendships that would have been hers too, had they married. Her response to the crisis on the Cobb demonstrates to him admirable qualities in her that might never have come to light in rural Somerset, or the fashionable town of Bath where her father and older sister now reside. Sea breezes have restored the colour to Anne’s cheeks and she becomes newly animated. By contrast, the headstrong Louisa, awash with sensibility and immune from persuasion, is knocked senseless.
As Graham says,
Lyme Regis as rendered by Austen offers a remarkable fit between place and feeling, nature and human nature…Lyme’s vistas inspire the transports of sensibility just as its bracing air invigorates the body; but nowhere else in the Austen canon have the rewards of balance been so concisely demonstrated and the perils of imbalance so dramatically and literally punished as on the Cobb.
Persuasion was Austen’s final work, written in 1815-16 and published posthumously. The story of a second chance, it has the classic Austen happy ending but on a more realistic and modest scale compared with, say, Pride and Prejudice. As Judith Terry points out in her introduction to the Everyman’s edition:
…the lovers are reunited but no sugar-plums are bestowed, ‘no landed estate, no headship of a family.’ Anne will never be mistress of her beloved Kellynch-hall, and Wentworth’s profession entails the threat of absence and loss.
Jane Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees a change of direction in Austen’s most mature work, observing that Persuasion is ‘a leap into a new mood and a new way of looking at England…it points approvingly towards a society in which merit can rise.’
Chopin was one of Austen’s favourite composers and this Prelude was featured in the 2007 television adaption of Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins.
Alfred Lord Tennyson was an early literary pilgrim and a great fan of Jane Austen. He avidly read and reread her novels and is quoted as saying:
Miss Austen understood the smallness of life to perfection. She was a great artist, equal in her small sphere to Shakespeare…
This opinion caused quite a stir and Tennyson later sought to qualify his comment:
I am reported to have said that Jane Austen was equal to Shakespeare. What I really said was that, in the narrow sphere of life which she delineated, she pictured her characters as truthfully as Shakespeare. But Austen is to Shakespeare as asteroid to sun. Miss Austen’s novels are perfect works on small scale – beautiful bits of stippling.
In the summer of 1867 Tennyson visited his friend the poet Francis Palgrave in Lyme Regis. On arrival, having walked nine miles from Bridport, he impatiently brushed aside all offers of refreshment, demanding to be taken at once to the Cobb to see the steps from which Louisa Musgrove fell. He was far keener to see ‘Granny’s Teeth’ than the town’s historical sites connected to the Monmouth rebellion.
Later, we will meet Tennyson and his friend Palgrave in Cornwall’s Tintagel.
Persuasion is my favourite Austen novel and I was so excited to be here. I woke at dawn and, like Anne and Henrietta, took a walk along the beach before breakfast. Much would have been the same in Austen’s day: the delightful lower village, its ‘principle street almost hurrying into the water’, the wide sweep of its bay and the outlook to distant hills.
I could never picture the Cobb in my mind and here it was, this great, hulking stone construction. No one knows why it was given this strange name but a harbour wall has existed in this same basic shape since the mid 16th Century. I can imagine you would not want to be walking up the top of it in a gale.
It was one of those pale, in and out sorts of days that showers one minute and shines a little half heartedly the next. I was caught out by a shower and scurried back for breakfast. It is a beautiful little town. We didn’t have time to do it justice but I will return, because the Cobb is the setting for another significant literary scene in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
A Libre Vox recording of Persuasion.
You can read Persuasion online at JaneAusten.org
A Guardian article ‘Less Landscape, more Dialogue’ by Sam Jordison about Austen’s preference for dissecting the inner lives of her characters.
Persuasion was adapted for film in 1995. It was directed by Roger Michell and starred Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. This is a terrible trailer – the film is wonderful.
The most recent version of Persuasion was produced for ITV in 2007. Directed by Adrian Shergold, it starred Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones. The ending of the story was disappointingly altered to heighten the romance of the story.
In this Radio 3 Documentary, Literary Pursuits: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Sarah Dillon explores the writing of the book.
Lilli Wilkinson discusses Persuasion with Laura Carroll, teacher of English literature at La Trobe University in this episode of Texts in the City.
Jane Austen Tours of Lyme Regis offer guided walks through the town.
The Lyme Regis Museum (writer John Fowles was once its curator) has a small collection of objects relating to the times of Jane Austen. As well as its world-famous collection of fossils, it has an intriguing collection of writers’ relics.
The Lyme Regis Town Council website’s Lyme Regis features accommodation, restaurants and information about Jane Austen.
And the Visit Dorset website.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion, Everyman Library, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992
Graham, Peter W. Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists. Routledge, 2008.
Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. The Obstinate Heart. Jane Austen, A Biography. Family Tree, 1997.
Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. Vintage, 1997.
Varlow, Sally. A Reader’s Guide to Writers’ Britain. Andre Deutsch, 2004.